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The way forward for Iraq hinges on the US's way out

Western experts agree that Iraq is not yet lost, but differ on how to withdraw.

By , Mark Rice-Oxley / March 20, 2006


Weeks ago, when President Bush said that Iraq had reached a "moment of choosing" after the bombing of a Samarra mosque, he could just as easily have been talking about the countries of his own coalition.

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Today, three years after the war began, the United States and Britain have their own decisions to make about how to help Iraq as it stumbles toward democracy, civil war, or both. Yet those decisions seem as uncertain as the course of the war itself.

In conversations with some of the most influential past policymakers in both America and Britain, there are notes of concord: Iraq is not yet lost, they agree, but Iraq's leaders must soon take more responsibility. Moreover, the inevitable withdrawal of troops must be orderly and purposeful, not a hasty flight.

When it comes to how and when to do this, however, many are as split as the nation they hope to unify. For instance, former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger says, "We are the only possible means of getting things put together." Yet in the words of former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: "The only way this can come together is if we decide to leave."

In some ways, the differences are a part of the ebb and flow of debate surrounding any enormous undertaking. Yet they also point to the unique challenges of Iraq, as coalition partners struggle to hold together a country straining under the centripetal forces of history, hate, and chaos.

The military playbook, for one, has been thrown out the window. The US does not have the resources or manpower to stamp out the insurgency militarily. "The way forward has to be political in nature," says former Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

Yet last week, America launched the largest airstrike since the start of the war. True, Operation Swarmer, as it was called, included Iraqi forces, and it was well intended: To secure Sunni areas in advance of a Shiite pilgrimage this week. But to some, it is just the sort of thing that the coalition should be avoiding.

"What we don't want to see is Western military troops patrolling in tanks or great assaults by attack helicopters," says Lord David Ramsbotham, former adjutant general of the British Army. "That will drive locals straight into what the opposition camp happens to be."

For its part, the US military agrees that the ultimate solution must come from the Iraqi people, not American troops. Yet the matter of getting Iraqi leaders to take more control of their country has been troublesome. Indeed, almost all the policymakers contacted by the Monitor cast this issue as the single greatest stumbling block to success. Without a functioning government that is at least somewhat inclusive and capable of controlling of the state, Iraq will fail, they agree.

Yet the tools at America's disposal to bring this about are few. "The United States can continue to try to bring the powers of persuasion to them and say ... 'We've lost lots of lives in order to help introduce the seeds of democracy at least. It is going to be up to you to see whether they flourish or whether they die,' " says Mr. Cohen.