It's the good, the bad, and the ugly: Three scenarios for Iraq a year from now as its people take back the reins of their own affairs.
Scenario 1: The country is relatively stable, becoming more prosperous, and set on a forward path ahead of where Afghanistan is today. Oil is flowing. Insurgent attacks are down. The minority Sunnis and Kurds are quiescent and working within the new power structure. US troops are mostly unseen and bored on their bases.
Scenario 2: Iraq isn't disintegrating, but has devolved into a more authoritarian regime than the US would like. Relations with Washington and US troops are tense. Heavy-handedness and human rights abuses abound as leaders revert to habits of the old regime. But essential services improve.
Scenario 3: Iraq by the summer of 2005 is staggering under uncontrolled Islamic extremism. It's in the early stages of a breakup, with parts of the country falling under the influence of Turkey, Iran, and other neighbors. Postponed elections occur, but fail to deliver political unity. Civil war looms.
This is the range of outlooks that experts predict over the next year. Most say the historic challenges that Iraq represents, plus mistakes of the past year, may put the first out of reach, while signs of Iraqi determination to see things improve may now render the third more remote.
That leaves something in the middle - although even some earlier optimists believe a deterioration toward the third is possible. "One can foresee a bunch of good scenarios, even more bad ones, but the largest number are middling," says Jon Alterman, a former member of the State Department policy planning staff now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. Perhaps the most decisive factor will be how engaged Iraqis feel in their country's reform after what is sure to be another year of change and uncertainty.
But even more engagement may not be enough for success. "For the first time, I think failure is a possibility," says Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. "There are degrees of failure, but if the next year is a slow slide to fragmentation ... and civil conflict, it will be hard to call it anything else."
With power now officially transferred from the occupying coalition to an interim government, Iraq's prospects shift to a new set of questions - now more dependent on what Iraqis themselves do than on the US: how quickly the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi can establish legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis; how quickly the services and economic growth that feed public satisfaction - which the US had trouble supplying - can be improved; whether a sense of stability can be restored. But the deciding factors will be political rather than military, experts say.
"One of the key disappointments of the last year is that Iraqis haven't appeared to feel ownership of what is happening in their country," adds Mr. Alterman. "That has to change" even for the "middling" scenarios to be attained.
Forget the beacon of democracy
On two points Iraq specialists tend to agree: The country won't be the beacon of democracy to the Middle East the Bush administration promised, and what happens in the US elections in November will have little impact on Iraq's fate. "The notion of a Jeffersonian democracy is so far out of the picture as to not even make the scenarios list," says John Hulsman, a foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. "What killed it was Abu Ghraib," he says, adding that the infamous photos of abuse repulsed Iraqis and other Middle Easterners who were already suspicious of the US project to make Iraq an example.
At the same time, the outcome of the US elections won't have much impact, various specialists say, because the Iraq project now depends more on Iraqis - and because George Bush's presumptive Democratic challenger, John Kerry, hasn't suggested an Iraq policy that veers much from the president's.
"From what we've seen so far it looks likely that Kerry would basically follow the same path as the administration, though he might at least consider alternatives to the Bush policy to 'stay the course,' " says Charles Pena, a security analyst at the Cato Institute.
The Bush administration foresees tens of thousands of US troops staying in Iraq well past next year. In recent congressional testimony, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said it's "entirely possible" the US military will have to maintain a significant presence in Iraq for years.
That scenario raises the prospects of Iraq becoming an entrenched battleground of Islamic extremism, Mr. Pena says. "A year from now we may very well be dealing with an Iraq that has been turned into a focal point in the war on terrorism," he says. "The faster we remove the US presence ... the more likely it is that Iraq does not become a foothold of radical Islam."
But aside from the problem of religious extremists, the way the government addresses the insurgency will be key to determining which Iraq emerges. Average Iraqis' demands for security will probably result in strongman measures that hark back to the country's traditions - if the new security forces are up to it.
"The only way Iraqis have seen violence dealt with effectively in the past is through a crack down, and with the security situation the priority it is, the interim government can be expected to become more authoritarian than the US would like," says Mr. Alterman. "The simple fact is that the Iraqi people would rather have better results in the long term than more freedoms in the short term."
Still, Iraq must deal with other principal tasks - such as holding a national conference in July and setting up elections by January 2005 - in ways that include political players the US was unable to work with. "The most positive scenario for Iraq is one where the government is able to broaden the political process so that it brings in some of what for the US were the bad guys," says Marina Ottaway, a governance specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. If large blocs like the Sunnis and Baathists remain "outside the tent," she says, the prospects for a stable Iraq a year from now dwindle.