Sunday, May 27, 2007
Strife Foreseen in Iraq Exit, but Experts Split on Degree
Strife Foreseen in Iraq Exit, but Experts Split on Degree
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and ALISSA J. RUBIN
WASHINGTON, May 26 — There is one matter on which American military commanders, many Iraqis and some of the Bush administration’s staunchest Congressional critics agree: if the United States withdrew its forces from Baghdad’s streets this fall, the murder and mayhem would increase.
But that is where the agreement ends. The wrangling in Washington over war financing, still fierce despite the Democrats’ decision to forgo for now withdrawal deadlines, has obscured a more fundamental debate over what Iraq’s future might look like without American troops.
Would the pullback of American forces unleash an even bloodier round of civil conflict that would lead to the implosion of the Iraqi government? Or would it put pressure on Iraqi politicians to finally reconcile their differences? More bluntly: how bad would things get?
Those questions loom as the administration debates how and when to wind down its troop increase in Iraq, as Iraqis weigh the trade-offs between autonomy and security, and as Congressional Democrats, frustrated by this week’s compromise with the White House, vow to hold a tougher line on future war financing.
To address the issue, The New York Times interviewed more than 40 Iraqi politicians and citizens and consulted recent surveys of public opinion in Iraq. The views of a broad range of senior military officials, American intelligence experts, politicians and independent analysts who have recently returned from Iraq were also solicited.
The somewhat surprising verdict of most Iraqis was clear. For all their distaste for the American occupation, many of them fear that a pullback any time soon would lead to a violent chain reaction that would jeopardize the fitful attempts at political dialogue and risk the collapse of the Iraqi government.
“Many militias and terrorist groups are just waiting for the Americans to leave,” said Salim Abdullah, the spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni Arab group in the Parliament, who lost two brothers this year to attacks by insurgents.
“This does not mean the presence of American troops in Baghdad is our favorite option,” he said. “People in the street say the United States is part of the chaos here and they could have made it better and safer. Still, we need America to make the country more stable and not leave Iraq in the trouble, which they, themselves, have caused.”
Senior American commanders in Iraq have a similar assessment. A troop drawdown should not occur until security is improved, military commanders say, and even then it should be gradual and carefully engineered. “There will be a time when we will slowly remove ourselves from the Iraqi forces and allow them to take more and more control,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, who has privately recommended that elevated troop levels be maintained through early 2008. “But this should be done thoughtfully and methodically when conditions permit.”
If the American forces were reduced too soon, military officials say, the fledgling Iraqi Army and police forces could not hold the line against a rising tide of suicide bomb attacks by insurgent groups like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Shiite militias that had decided to lie low would resume large-scale attacks on Sunni residents. Mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, already growing scarce, would disappear, and Iraqi forces would fracture along sectarian lines.
The conditions that need to be achieved before a major troop reduction, General Odierno said, are a reduction in insurgent and militia attacks and an improved ability by Iraqi security forces to protect noncombatants.
A sharply divergent view is prevalent in Congress, where lawmakers have pressed, unsuccessfully, to impose a schedule for American troop withdrawal and binding benchmarks for Iraqi political reform. Some leading Democrats acknowledge a risk of increased violence if the United States pulls back, but they assert that the Iraqis will not take the painful steps toward a genuine political accommodation until American forces begin to leave.
“That is the leverage,” said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “They have got to look into the abyss. And this is the abyss: do they want a civil war, or do they want a nation?”
“I would begin a troop reduction as an action-forcing mechanism,” he added.
The View From Iraq
In trying to stem the violence in Iraq, the Bush administration is expanding the American force in Baghdad. The goal has not been to impose a military solution, but to provide enough security that Iraqis can move toward political reconciliation.
A National Intelligence Estimate made public in January analyzed the consequences of a complete withdrawal of American troops over 12 to 18 months. The document, which reflects the collective view of the United States intelligence agencies, said that American forces were an essential stabilizing element in Iraq and warned that Iraq’s security forces would be hard-pressed to assume significantly expanded responsibilities in that period. No similar intelligence assessment has been made public on what might occur if the United States pulled back from its effort to secure Baghdad several months from now but maintained a limited troop presence at the large bases in and around the capital.
But many Iraqis have a view on this question and on the consequences of a total withdrawal. Sheik Ajmi al-Mutashar, an agricultural engineer and businessman from Salahuddin Province in central Iraq and a Sunni, said he worried that an American troop pullback would lead to the collapse of the Iraqi government. “If the government falls it will be impossible to form another one,” he said. “We will have small emirates or cantons divided on sectarian and ethnic lines.”
Several Shiites also agreed that an American pullback would severely weaken the already fragile Iraqi government and lead to a surge of fighting among armed factions. “Without a strong and visible American presence, the government would collapse,” said Abu Fayad, an aide to a leading Shiite member of Parliament. “Of course there will be many different wars. Basra, Diwaniya, Baghdad. Everyone will try to control Iraq’s fortune. The Americans failed, but they should stay.”
Salah Sultan al-Obeidi, 39, a government employee who lives in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City but says he holds secular views, says he worries that moderate elements of Iraqi society would be even more vulnerable if the Americans were to leave. “In Baghdad there will be fierce fighting between Sunni and Shiite extremists. Sunni terrorists will kill all the Sunnis who took part in the political process.”
A recent analysis on Iraqi perceptions of the war by an American expert, Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said most Iraqis did not see the American troops as allies or liberators, but still feared a sudden withdrawal. About 64 percent of Baghdad residents who were polled in late February and early March said American forces should remain until security was restored, until the Iraqi government was stronger or until Iraqi forces could operate independently. Only 36 percent said American troops should leave now, according to the polling data, which was commissioned by ABC News and other news organizations.
Iraqis who favor a speedy American departure include those who think the country will stabilize after a flaring of violence and redrawing of sectarian boundaries. Some factions, including many supporters of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, said they believed that they would be better able to bring stability, albeit on their own terms.
“I think the Sadr tide will rule the country,” said Muhammad Qasim Ali, a suitcase salesman in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Karada. “They are the majority and they have a good background, and that gives them a chance to take control. Once we take power, we will be merciful with Sunnis. Our way is to kill somebody only when we suspect he has a link to insurgents.”
A bare majority of Iraq’s 275-member Parliament recently signed a petition promoted by Mr. Sadr that called for a timetable for American troops to depart. Even so, the petition said the Americans should not leave until Iraqi security forces were ready to take over the job. “Pulling back to bases maybe makes sense,” said Mansour Abdul Mohsin Abboud, 66, a Shiite tribal sheik who lives in Najaf. “But leaving, withdrawing completely from Iraq, that means erasing Iraq from the map.”
The View From Washington
President Bush has said that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would invite catastrophe there, and that argument has been forcefully embraced by other Republicans, including Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. American military commanders are wary of being drawn into the American political debate over Iraq, but they have warned about the risks in quickly reducing troop levels.
In the end, Baghdad would not become an entirely Shiite city. The east, northwest, and southwest areas of Baghdad would likely be Shiite-dominated. But the west-central area of the capital would remain a Sunni stronghold, reinforced by the Sunnis from the nearby areas of Abu Ghraib, Taji, Yusifiya, and from the provinces Anbar and Salahuddin Province. That would set the stage for further conflict.
A number of Democratic lawmakers who have pushed for troop withdrawals insisted that forecasts of stepped-up violence were overstated. Representative John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said that the violence had risen over the past four years despite the presence of American troops, and that the American capacity to control events in Iraq was limited. “Everybody predicts chaos: I don’t predict chaos,” he said. “It goes up for a short period and it is not nearly as intense as everybody is predicting.”
Senator Levin acknowledged a risk that violence could increase if troops began to leave soon, but asserted that such a move would prompt the Iraqis to assume more responsibility for their own security.
“There is risk, but I think the greater risk is not putting pressure on the Iraqis, watching them say that time is not relevant,” he said.
Several specialists who hold out hope for stabilizing Iraq, including Mr. Cordesman, said it was not practical to reduce American troop levels until next year. “We need to phase out slowly,” Mr. Cordesman said. “Most likely, the Iraqi police cannot possibly be ready to take over by this fall. And to pull out of Baghdad will be seen as pulling out of Iraq.”
“The people who should say when the U.S. should leave are the Iraqis, not experts and politicians in Washington,” he added. “The Iraqis don’t have any incentive to have the U.S. stay any longer than necessary, but they also have no incentive to rush events in Iraq to the point where a high-risk situation becomes certain failure.”
Even some specialists who take a bleak view of trends in Iraq said they doubted that beginning a phased troop withdrawal would prod the Iraqis to reconcile. “Projecting our hopes onto them does not correspond to anything we know about the way Iraqi politics has worked so far,” said Steven N. Simon, an aide on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and the author of a paper that advocates a military disengagement from Iraq.
Mr. Simon argued that the upheaval that would follow the departure of American troops would stop short of genocide, since Sunni Arabs would have a haven to return to in the western province of Anbar, the Kurds have northern Iraq, and the factions generally lack heavy weapons. He acknowledged that the violent partition of Baghdad neighborhoods was likely, and that there would be sectarian clashes in other cities, but said that there was little the United States could do to stop it if Iraqis were not prepared to compromise.
“It will get ugly,” he said. “There is no question about it. My argument is that it is unavoidable.”
Anthony C. Zinni, a retired four-star general who formerly led Central Command, strongly opposed the decision to invade Iraq, fearing that it might lead to sectarian fighting and regional destabilization. But now that American forces have occupied the country, General Zinni fears that a troop withdrawal will compound the instability. The notion that the United States can pressure the Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security, the general said, was impractical: with Iraqi security forces still not ready, militias would fill the gap.
General Zinni said it made sense to keep American forces at current levels for a year or so before gradually reducing troop levels and executing a strategy to try to keep Iraq’s instability from spreading. “When we are in Iraq we are in many ways containing the violence,” he said. “If we back off we give it more room to breathe, and it may metastasize in some way and become a regional problem. We don’t have to be there at the same force level, but it is a five- to seven-year process to get any reasonable stability in Iraq.”
Michael R. Gordon reported from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Baghdad. Wissam A. Habeeb contributed reporting from Baghdad, and employees of The New York Times from Tikrit, Mosul, Kirkuk, Basra and Sadr City.
Posted by lmurx at 10:53 AM