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U.S. can do little to stop civil war in Iraq, experts say

WASHINGTON—This is supposed to be a pivotal week for the U.S. venture in Iraq: President Bush is to meet Thursday in Jordan with Iraq's prime minister, and the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group has begun debating its final recommendations to the White House.

But does any of it matter?

Not really, according to a growing number of Middle East analysts, who say that Iraq's cascading civil war has spun out of Washington's control.

If Iraq is to hold together and avoid an all-out bloodbath, they say, it will be because the country's warring factions step back from the brink and forge some sort of political compromise. That seems like a pipe dream after a weekend of the worst violence for Iraqi civilians since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The United States has 140,000 troops in Iraq and is spending roughly $2 billion per week on military operations, "but all of that effort doesn't really matter," said Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

"We're not in control any longer," Bacevich said.

"There is a growing sense that both sides are attempting to move toward a civil war—they want to have a civil war—to bring closure to who will have power in Iraq," said a retired senior military officer who requested anonymity, referring to Iraq's Shiite and Sunni Muslims. "This is all about power."

Bush is due to meet in Amman, Jordan, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in an effort to prod him to take concrete steps, particularly to deal with rampaging sectarian militias.

But Maliki's government is seen as increasingly ineffectual, particularly by Iraqis, who are turning more and more to local militias to protect them. What's more, Maliki needs the support of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is one of the powerful Shiite militias. Sadr's political party controls four ministries and the largest bloc of votes in parliament.

"This is an out-and-out fight for power," agreed Jeffrey White, a former senior Middle East analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency who's now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"There is a smokescreen of this national unity government, but they have no general agreement on the future shape of Iraq, no general agreement on the distribution of power, no general agreement on the distribution of resources," White said. "It defies any magic or golden formula."

The CIA's director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, told a Senate committee in mid-November that "Iraq's endemic violence is eating away at the state's ability to govern."

The spreading civil strife threatens to overwhelm the long-awaited recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and retired Congressman Lee Hamilton.

The group's 10 commissioners, five Republicans and five Democrats, began meeting Monday to try to reach consensus on a final report, which Baker and Hamilton hope to issue in early December.

The panel is expected to recommend U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria to stabilize Iraq, which would be a major policy reversal on the part of Bush, who's shunned both governments.

But even if Iran and Syria wanted to help, they're almost certain to demand U.S. concessions and they might have limited ability to assist, the analysts said.

"This thing is going to be decided by Iraqis in Iraq," said Wayne White, a longtime Middle East intelligence officer at the State Department who's now retired. "Surrounding players are going to play a bit part."

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush wanted to hear Maliki's ideas on what to do in Iraq, including how to meet the prime minister's goal of accelerating the handover of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.

"We are not at the point where the president is going to be in a position to lay out a comprehensive plan," Hadley told reporters traveling with Bush.

Bush also wanted to reassure Maliki that while he'd listen to proposals from the Baker-Hamilton commission, it would be he "who will be crafting the way forward ... in a way that is cooperative with Iraq, rather than imposed on Iraq," Hadley said.

Publicly, the Bush administration disputes that Iraq is in a civil war.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Iraq was not in a civil war because "you have not yet had a situation . . . where you have two clearly defined and opposing groups vying not only for power but for territory."

However, as McClatchy reported from Baghdad this week, Shiites and Sunnis are battling for control of the city's neighborhoods in an organized way.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, when he was asked whether Iraq is in a civil war, replied: "Unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact we are almost there."

Not all outside experts argue that the United States is virtually powerless in Iraq.

Michael O'Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution said there were still some steps that the United States and its partners could take, including more intensive regional diplomacy, better training of Iraqi security forces and a one-year increase in U.S. troop levels.

But "it certainly doesn't look good," said O'Hanlon, who like Wayne White and Jeffrey White has been advising the Iraq Study Group. "The Baghdad security plan was the last hope we had, but it did not improve things." He was referring to an unsuccessful U.S.-Iraqi operation over the summer to stabilize the Iraqi capital.

The Iraq Study Group and a separate U.S. military review are thought to be weighing whether to recommend a temporary surge in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

But most experts agree that it would take more than the 20,000 additional soldiers often discussed—perhaps at least 50,000—to make a difference, which would stretch the Army, National Guard and Reserve to the breaking point.

Jeffrey White described the multi-layered violence in Iraq this way: "(The) Sunni insurgency remains one of the engines of this civil conflict, this civil war. And there is militia violence now. And you have coalition violence. You have major Sunni-on-Sunni violence in Anbar province. ... And you have criminal violence, widespread Shia-on-Shia violence in the South."

"The elements of violence and resistance and just the bloodymindedness are so embattled it requires something major and enduring (by the United States) or just get out," he said.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.