Nov 30, 2006

A More Realistic View of the Iraq Quagmire

The civil war in Iraq is likely to deteriorate significantly over the next few months regardless of which combination of options the Bush administration chooses to exercise, according to a report released by a leading Washington think-tank on Wednesday.

The report, Options for Iraq, dismisses as "dishonest" the Bush administration's claims to have readied more than 100 Iraqi military units for combat, pointing out that the true number is probably less than a third of the Pentagon's estimate.

It also takes strong issue with the notion that Washington can simply put pressure on Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, to push harder for conciliation between Iraq's clashing sectarian groups. It disputes the growing consensus in Washington that the US should press the Maliki government to close down the sectarian militias and forge a reconciliation with the Sunni Arab groups by threatening to withdraw US forces.

"It is not meaningful to blame Iraq for the problems that exist. These are mistakes that we made in nation-building," said Tony Cordesman, author of the report and one of the most influential analysts of the Iraq civil war, at the Centre for Strategic International Studies. "When you send a bull in to liberate a china shop, to blame the china shop for the broken china seems disingenuous, if not misleading."

The report says that the only way the US can hope to stabilise Iraq is by coming clean with the American public about the long-term costs, risks and patience that would be entailed in achieving that goal. It urges the Bush administration to listen to the Iraqi government and America's allies in the Middle East and Europe, rather than continue to treat "26m Iraqis as white rats" in an experiment of transplanting democracy.

But Mr Cordesman was also skeptical about alternative plans in circulation. These included options for a time-linked "phased" withdrawal of US troops; putting up to 30,000 more troops into Iraq to re-attempt a stabilisation of Baghdad despite earlier failures; and a more controversial one to partition Iraq into Kurdish, Sunni and Shia entities.

He said there were no "silver bullets" to unravel the increasingly dangerous situation in Iraq but the US could at least try to prevent the Iraq war from spiralling into a broader regional war.

"Threats to withdraw, the failure to provide economic incentives [to the Iraq government], the failure to work with or listen to our allies and flooding Iraq with yet more unqualified advisers will not achieve our strategic objectives," he said.

Mr Cordesman also criticised the quality of economic aid to Iraq, describing it as "one of the most expensive exercises of waste in modern American history".

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