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Americans should prepare to stay in Iraq for years, experts say

BERLIN—Despite strong opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and a continued nervousness about a European presence there, few European foreign policy experts believe the United States can withdraw its troops from Iraq without creating global chaos.

Asked recently what the United States should do about Iraq, expert after expert repeated one assertion: Whatever the result of the U.S. presidential election in November, Americans must be prepared to stay in Iraq, perhaps for years.

Even as popular pressure mounts in ally nations Great Britain, Italy, Poland and Denmark to remove troops from Iraq, and though Spain has withdrawn its troops, the foreign policy experts said the United States can't go. Why? Because while the war has always been unpopular, the notion of a chaotic Iraq is terrifying.

"Listen, I was dead-set against intervention," said Jurg Martin Gabriel, director of the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, a joint venture between Switzerland and Malta whose primary task is training leaders for Arab nations. "But now that they're in, they have to see it out. I hope whoever is the U.S. president next year understands they should plan on being there for a long while."

A spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs predicted that if the U.S.-led coalition pulled out at once, "Iraq would be in civil war within 24 hours."

"As difficult as the decision was to go to Iraq, the decision to leave is more difficult," said Bart Jochem. "Can we turn our backs on the Iraqi people? I'm afraid that would be bad for the country, bad for the people, bad for the region and bad for the world. It would, however, be good for the terrorists."

How European experts feel about the United States' presence in Iraq may not boost their countries' willingness to send more troops. There is virtually no popular support for dispatching European troops to Iraq, and a U.S.-sponsored U.N. resolution that would create a U.N. force has received tepid response.

But their opinions do offer a backdrop against which to judge proposals on future U.S. actions in Iraq offered in the hothouse of the American presidential campaign. Unlike politicians in the United States, the European experts don't have to concern themselves with accusations that they are deserting the troops or undercutting the war effort.

Their solution stops far short of independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader's call for the United States to withdraw and echoes Democratic presidential aspirant John Kerry's call for a continued U.S. presence with more international support.

"The United States created a security vacuum when they invaded," said Michael Pohly, Berlin-based author of "Osama bin Laden and International Terrorism" who's spent decades advising on and studying the region. "It is their duty to fill it, and they should plan on filling it for another two years, at least. If they fail to do this, someone else will fill the vacuum, and the Western world will not like who that will be."

There are, of course, those who disagree. London Mayor Ken Livingstone, recently writing in The Guardian newspaper, said, "The only way forward is to transfer command of security operations to the United Nations and announce the progressive withdrawal of U.S. and British troops."

In an opinion piece this week in Die Welt, one of Germany's most pro-American newspapers, the historian Walter Laqueur said the dream of democracy in Iraq was always "make-believe" and that the United States should be wary of Iraqis who ask them to get out, "but not so fast, please, for Allah's sake."

"It would be stupid for the Americans' to listen to this advice. It would mean the agony would go on forever."

Far more common are words similar to those in a recent London Daily Mail editorial: "Signs of disarray only encourage the terrorists. They must now believe the West is losing its will. There could hardly be a surer recipe for anarchy, victory for al-Qaida and even more turmoil in the Middle East."

Many of the experts acknowledge that the task is a large one—perhaps much larger than President Bush suggested Monday when he said the United States would keep 138,000 troops in Iraq through the end of next year. The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies suggested Tuesday that the security force should be much larger, perhaps as many as 500,000 coalition soldiers.

The experts also urged the United States not to be deterred by the outcry over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. Gabriel, the director of the joint Swiss-Malta diplomatic institute, said a strong, long-lasting reaction to the photos was a luxury not afforded to many poor nations.

"Most of the students here are aware—and are very open about the fact—that their own governments hardly have sparkling human rights records," he said. "Deficiencies in human rights and democracy are not uncommon in this world."

Margaret Scammell, an expert on political communications at The London School of Economics, agreed that while the prison photos have been damaging, they don't change the need for an American and British presence in Iraq, though she called for a greater role for the United Nations.

"Look, the torture photos were a disaster, weren't they," Scammell said, "but maybe more so for the reputations of the U.K. and U.S. worldwide than for any practical reason on the ground in Iraq. To rebuild those reputations, the United Nations becomes vital."

Without the United Nations, she adds, "the cooperation of those who've been opposed to the war all along, which is now vital, becomes almost impossible to get."

But it can all still work out, because Europeans agree with Americans that the stakes of failure are high, the experts say.

"It would be foolish to say the events of the past months have made the situation easier," said Dick Leurdijk, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, which is devoted to issues of international affairs and security. "But yes, there is a way out of the current situation."

Leurdijk said that the presence of coalition tanks and troops on Iraqi streets these days creates as many attacks as it prevents. He thinks that a less prominent, but equally strong, presence could offer most of the security benefits without the traps.

"The military element is essential, and will be for a couple more years," he said. "But the troubles are only going to increase in the coming months. The U.S. has to become invisible, go back into the barracks or, in this case, the palaces."

The reasoning is simple: History doesn't have a lot of examples of people welcoming occupiers, he said. Their current profile not only angers residents, but weakens the standing of the newly created Iraqi forces.

In addition, Pohly urged the United States to turn to former soldiers of the Saddam Hussein regime to bring security and cited events in Fallujah as an example of how that might work.

"They have to re-establish the old military, or they have no chance to re-establish the state," he said. All these men out fighting in the streets need to be back in the army, training to protect Iraq."

As the liberal Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel noted this week, "Many Iraqis fear that chaos will break out after the GIs withdraw. The specter of civil war is looming behind every bazaar."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.