Dead End

Time is running out for U.S. forces in Iraq with no good exit strategy. The least bad outcome, experts say, would be an ethnically divided country, still wracked by violence

December 03, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

Stay the course is out. Adjusting tactics is in. Insurgency is fading. Civil war appears to have arrived.

Withdraw troops? Increase troops? A phased withdrawal? A stated timetable? Stick with al-Maliki's government? Look for new leadership?

The future of Iraq and the United States' mission there is as murky as Baghdad in the midst of a sandstorm.

Still, something fundamental is going to change no matter how deeply President Bush appears to dig in his heels.

A new Congress, with Democrats swept into leadership on a wave of dissatisfaction with the war, takes its seat next month. A new secretary of defense is about to take office as generals in the Pentagon rethink tactics. A study group of Washington wise men is about to release its already leaked findings. The White House has its own review coming to conclusions.

Many of those who study Iraq agree: The United States faces many choices there, none of them good ones.

"All of the options have real big downsides," says Francis Fukuyama of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

With each tick of the clock, those options seem to get more limited. The inevitable outcome many foresee is a country, still far from peaceful, divided along sectarian lines.

But getting from here to there is a difficult task.

"What should America do now? Frankly, I haven't the foggiest," says Thabit Abdullah, an Iraqi in the history department at York University in Toronto.

"I have no answers," echoes Waleed Hazbun, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins who studies the Middle East. "And I am very skeptical of anyone who does, to be honest."

Steven David, a security expert in Hopkins' political science department, agrees: "I don't know anyone outside of the Bush administration who thinks this is going to end well. At best we can finesse a dignified exit.

"The notion of Iraq being transformed into anything remotely resembling a liberal democracy is gone," David says. "The question now is how we can leave in a way that preserves some credibility and doesn't make things much worse for our interests in the region and the world."

Bottom line: The only thing certain about Iraq is uncertainty. Any vision of that country's future is going to be murky, but one that starts to come into focus has it looking a bit like Lebanon, with strong undertones of Bosnia.

That's because, like Humpty Dumpty, Iraq has fallen off its secular wall and broken into its religious and ethnic components - Sunni, Shiite and Kurd. It is not going to be put back together again.

So, this argument goes, the Bush administration should quit getting Americans and Iraqis killed in that vain struggle. Instead, it should recognize that the only hope for stability is for the country to separate into three regions.

"These would not necessarily be formal states, just Kurd- and Sunni- and Shiite-dominated regions," David says. "Perhaps the capital in Baghdad would remain multi-ethnic and there would be some arrangement for oil-revenue sharing, and the hope would be that would provide some sort of basis for stability by which we could leave."

Fukuyama terms this "a soft partition."

"It is very costly. There are still an awful lot of people around Baghdad and in the south who would have to move," he says. "The question is where can we get some sort of international legitimization for what amounts to ethnic cleansing, which, hopefully, could be done nonviolently."

This is something of a vision of Bosnia, a place where, like Iraq, the several ethnic groups - Serbs, Croats and Muslims - had lived together peacefully for generations. Many thought that they could continue that way. But once security broke down, people retreated into their ethnic groupings and the civil war was on.

In Iraq, two of those groupings would have foreign sponsors - Iran for the Shia and Syria for the Sunni (the Kurds have achieved stability in the north on their own). And so this vision becomes like Lebanon, where those same two countries have a similar influence over similar ethnicities.

That arrangement keeps the country relatively stable with a balance of tension, while in the capital, Beirut, there is at least the pretense of a unified democratic government. The same dynamic could bring some sort of stability to Iraq, without, one hopes, the 15 years of civil war it took to get there in Lebanon.

"The Sunnis have got to accept that they are not the owners of Iraq," says Karol Soltan of the University of Maryland's government and politics department. "One way to do that is the Lebanese way, 15 years of brutal civil war. On the other hand, it is relatively amazing that the South African whites gave it up peacefully. So you've got two models."

In this vision of Iraq's future, Baghdad would be a Potemkin village of a multi-ethnic Iraq, in reality also ethnically divided by neighborhood and heavily policed to keep the peace.

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