When to withdraw?

October 27, 2005|By THOMAS R. MATTAIR

Iraq has not turned out as we wanted. The government is led by religious Shiites along with Kurds, not by secular Shiites more willing to cooperate with the minority Sunnis who ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

The new constitution calls for a weak central government that gives too much autonomy to the Shiites in the south, where most of Iraq's oil is, and to Kurds in the north. The Sunnis voted against the constitution and the Sunni insurgency will continue in part because oil-poor Sunnis do not expect an adequate share of Iraq's oil revenues under this arrangement.

If Sunnis win more seats in the next parliament, they may bring about satisfactory constitutional amendments. If some Sunni insurgents, including Baathists from the former regime, then lay down their arms and Iraqi forces become capable of coping with the remaining insurgents, U.S. forces could withdraw, perhaps retaining access rights to bases.

But amendments will require approval by two-thirds of the new parliament and approval in another popular referendum. Sunnis might not overcome these hurdles. And it is possible that a better constitution would not motivate many insurgents to stop fighting. It is also possible that Iraqi security forces will not improve much.

If any of this occurs, Iraq's civil war will get worse and the country might break up.

U.S. forces do not deserve to die in the middle of a civil war that the United States cannot resolve. Can we do anything to avert this?

The United States could announce a timetable for withdrawal to push Shiites and Kurds who need U.S. protection to compromise with Sunnis. But the Bush administration thinks a timetable would encourage insurgents to fight on.

The United States could promote individuals who would compromise, but this would be interference in Iraq's democratic process.

The United States could try new approaches to Iraq's neighbors, especially with Iran. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran naturally favor their co-religionists in Iraq but also want to avoid a civil war that might spill over into Saudi and Iranian oil fields. They both have a stake in urging political compromise on their friends in Iraq and may be more receptive to this U.S. argument as civil war worsens.

But perhaps none of this can prevent escalating civil war and fragmentation. Even so, if civil war can be contained within Iraq, U.S. forces could begin withdrawing. They could not help by staying.

President Bush argues that a U.S. withdrawal would leave Iraq to al-Qaida terrorists who would use it to threaten their neighbors, Europe and the United States. But they are less than 10 percent of the Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

And if Iraq fragmented and the United States began withdrawing, virtually all Iraqis and all Iraqi neighbors, including Syria and Iran, would recognize al-Qaida in Iraq as an enemy dedicated to overthrowing them. They would be compelled to prevent it from prevailing in Iraq.

The administration also does not want any U.S. withdrawal to increase Iran's influence in Iraq's oil-rich Shiite south. But this would not necessarily threaten the region. Iran has improved relations with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states over the past decade and could use talks with the United States to explain why it would not want to reverse this achievement.

If Iran did support aggression by Iraqi Shiites, however, and if civil war threatened to spill into Kuwaiti and Saudi oil fields, possibly leading to an Arab-Iranian conflict, it would be difficult to continue a U.S. withdrawal. U.S. guarantees to Saudi Arabia and other gulf Arab states might deter Iran from any direct attacks, but this would probably involve some U.S. troops in southern Iraq for the defense of these countries, which would alarm Iran.

Initiating military action against Iran, however, could have worse consequences than our pre-emptive action in Iraq. Iran could fight us in Iraq, where it would be helped by Shiites, and in Iran, which is bigger and more populous than Iraq.

Iran could retaliate with strikes against U.S. Navy vessels and ports, oil tankers, oil and gas fields and Arab states throughout the Persian Gulf. Oil prices could skyrocket. U.S. forces could stop overt Iranian attacks like these and deal severe blows to Iran. But Iran would do some damage first. U.S. forces could not easily stop covert Iranian actions.

So let us therefore seek a diplomatic understanding about Iraq with its neighbors, especially Iran, but also with Syria, Arab friends and Turkey. Such talks might help avert or contain a civil war.

Iran does not want civil war that threatens Iraqi Shiites, that spills over into Iran or that leads to conflict with the United States. Iran's clerical leaders recently have curbed the newly elected hard-line president in an apparent effort to avoid conflict with the West. They may be ready to cooperate with the United States over Iraq as they cooperated with Washington against the Taliban and al-Qaida after 9/11. The Bush administration has authorized low-level talks, and these should be pushed to a higher level, if possible. U.S. and Israeli intelligence say Iran could not have nuclear weapons for 10 years, so there is no need to rush a pre-emptive military action on this score. If Iran does not want public talks, even secret meetings or intermediaries could be helpful. We owe this to our troops, our friends and ourselves.

Thomas R. Mattair has advised the U.S. government on Persian Gulf issues and has advised Arab governments about their relations with Iraq and Iran.

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