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How will the Iraq war end?

On the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, progress is slow but violence is down. A three-part series on the war's effects starts today with a look at what the endgame might look like.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 18, 2008

photo illustration; john kehe -staff; photo ap

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The Iraq war might end like this:

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•Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds uneasily share power and wealth in a single state. Sectarian violence, as well as terrorism linked to Al Qaeda, are diminished but not eliminated. Overseeing all this are perhaps 30,000 to 50,000 US troops, deployed in Iraq for years, maybe decades.

•Iraq is partitioned, accompanied by a return to the widespread sectarian violence of 2006 – times two.

Five years after the invasion of Iraq, those scenarios might be the best and worse cases that the United States now can aim for. One key to the outcome may be how long the US stays engaged in the expensive, drawn-out conflict.

From the point of view of the US, the Iraq war might be over when a president simply declares an endpoint. To an Iraqi, it might take much longer than that. Iraq today might be only at the midpoint, even the beginning, of a cycle of epic geopolitical change, say some analysts in a Monitor survey of experts in the region as well as in the US. For evidence, look at the Balkans, they say, which is still experiencing the geopolitical aftershocks of its mid-1990s wars.

"It will take the whole term of the next president to get this right," says Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution foreign-policy expert who advocates continuing surge-level US military efforts.

The Bush administration's vision of 2003 – that an Iraq freed of Saddam Hussein would be a peaceful hive of democracy, the Germany of the Middle East, and a source of strategic strength for the US – long ago proved wildly optimistic. It's been replaced by the knowledge that Iraq is a frail state, a source of strategic weakness, and a likely drain on US resources for some time to come.

On one basic point, the US invasion of Iraq has been wholly successful: It toppled Saddam Hussein. That may not seem as important today as it did at one time, given that the invasion also did not find any of his vaunted weapons of mass destruction, and that the unintended consequences of his removal have proved to be numerous.

But many of Mr. Hussein's neighbors considered him a source of instability. At least one US ally in the region remains grateful he is gone.

"Any Iraq will be better than Iraq under Saddam, because the Iraq of Saddam had the ability to threaten Israel," says Shlomo Brom, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the Israeli Defense Force's Strategic Planning Division.