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.

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.

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.

The experiences of past months give Mr. Eagleburger confidence in patience. After repeated delays, Iraqi leaders built an interim government, created a constitution, and have established a permanent parliament. "We have no choice but to stay until we are successful," he says. "If we weren't there, what would happen is that the opposition would take advantage of it."

Yet to many others, Iraqi leaders won't be forced to make the hard decisions until the security blanket of coalition forces is gone - or at least on its way out. "With the new government, we're going to have to talk tough," says former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, who oversaw America's gradual withdrawal from Vietnam. "If we don't start moving, we're never going to get them to realize that they have to fulfill their responsibilities."

He contends that South Vietnam fell only when Congress decided to cut support to the South Vietnamese military - two years after the withdrawal of troops. "Let [the Iraqis] know that we will stand with them," he says.

The question of withdrawal is, in many respects, the most contentious issue of the Iraq war. Yet even those who disagree on when agree on one point: The manner in which the coalition withdraws is crucially important. Cohen goes so far as to say: "It's not so important as to when we leave, but how we leave."

The worry is that if the US is perceived to be abandoning Iraq, it could destabilize the region. "It gives a tremendous boost to the worst elements in the Muslim world," says Eagleburger. Moreover, he adds, "If Iranians see us fail, their concerns over what we or the Western world might do will be substantially relaxed."

British former adjutant general Ramsbotham suggests setting clear and achievable goals for withdrawal and tying them to the renewal of the UN mandate later this year. "I would like to see a structured plan based on ... a set of bench marks so that when pipelines are adequately protected by Iraqi forces, then a certain number of troops could leave," he says. "When power is fully restored, then more could leave."

Rather than setting an arbitrary deadline, he says, it "is putting in the kind of things that make Iraqis realize that this route is better than what went on before."

And against the threat of an Iraqi collapse, the US must also try to give more nations a stake in a successful Iraq. If other countries - particularly Iraq's neighbors - want Iraq to survive, they will be more likely to support its fledgling steps.

The recent announcement that America would be opening talks with Iran about Iraq is just the sort of thing that is "long overdue," says Sir Hilary Synnott, the Coalition Provisional Authority's coordinator in southern Iraq from mid-2003 to early 2004. "All the neighbors need to be talked to and talk to each other ... so they all see a common interest in stability."

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