It is time to plan for an American withdrawal from Iraq

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The Bush administration is probably right in asserting that the ongoing violence in Iraq is not yet a civil war but rather a fragmentary civil strife that could escalate into a civil war. That, alas, is also testimony to the proposition that the occupation of Iraq has proven to be inconclusive, costly and destructive of Iraq’s social fabric.

From this viewpoint, how certain can one be that if America were to desist, the Shia and Kurd population of Iraq would not be capable of compelling on their own an arrangement with the Sunni-Arab community? Together, the Shia and the Kurds account for about 75 per cent of the population, and both are well-armed.

The Sunni would be faced with a difficult decision: whether to accommodate or resist. Some may choose the path of accommodation and some the path of resistance. But the outcome of any confrontation is also predictable: namely, that the Kurds and Shia would prevail. Is that an outcome necessarily worse than staying on course, which involves a bloody war of attrition waged by “an ineffective occupier” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Bremer, former US administrator in Iraq)?

Given that a more authentic Iraqi political leadership is finally beginning to push aside the earlier US-hand-picked choices, the time is ripe to adopt a strategy for terminating the US military presence in the country. The following four-point programme could serve as the basic framework for an acceptable termination of the US involvement in the ongoing conflict that the Bush administration seems unable either to win militarily or to end politically.

First, Washington should quietly ask Iraqi leaders to publicly ask the US to leave. The US decision should not be announced arbitrarily, but the US should talk to the Iraqi leaders about the intention to set a date for departure. There would be Iraqi leaders who would ask America to leave. Some are openly opposed to the occupation. Some might feel their own political prospects would be strengthened if they publicly identified themselves with widespread hostility of the Iraqi people to the occupation. And some of course would not wish to ask the US to leave. They are the ones who would leave when we leave, which says something about the depth of their domestic support.

Second, after such a public request, the US and Iraqi governments would jointly consult on a date for ending the occupation. I would think that within a year, the US should be able to complete an orderly disengagement. The commitment to a date would be extremely useful in concentrating Iraqi minds on what would follow and encourage them to assume responsibility. The assumption of responsibility by Iraqi leaders who would know that they would soon be responsible for the future of their country is more likely to produce leaders who are prepared to lead and have the will to lead.

I do not believe the argument that setting a date somehow would help the insurgency. The insurgency is dispersed, largely spontaneous, hiding itself in the crevices of Iraqi society and exploiting the chaos and hostility produced by the foreign occupation.

Third, the Iraqi government – not the US – should then also call for a regional conference of Muslim states, some immediately adjoining Iraq, others more distant. By way of example, one might mention Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, perhaps also Turkey (although that is sensitive because of Kurdistan), Algeria, Tunisia and maybe even Iran. The Muslim neighbours and friends should be asked to help the Iraqi government establish and consolidate internal stability. The call should not come from the US and such help would not be available if Iraq was still occupied.

Fourth, the US on leaving should convene a donors’ conference of European states, Japan, China and others with an interest in a stable oil-exporting Iraq to become more directly involved in financing the restoration of the Iraqi economy. But that again is more likely to be productive only when it is obvious that the US occupation is ending.

The US needs to recognise that its intervention in Iraq is becoming part of a wider, dangerous collision between America and the Muslim world – a collision that could prove, if it becomes truly widespread, devastating to America’s global position. An America in a conflict with the world of Islam as a whole will be an America with more enemies and fewer friends, an America more isolated and less secure.

The writer, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is author of The Choice (Basic Books)

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