Two grim predictions on Iraqi pullout
BAGHDAD: As the Senate prepares to begin a new debate this week on proposals for a withdrawal from Iraq, the United States ambassador and the Iraqi foreign minister are warning that the departure of American troops could lead to sharply increased violence, the deaths of thousands and a regional conflict that could draw in Iraq's neighbors.
Two months before a pivotal assessment of progress in the war that he and the overall American military commander in Iraq are to make to the White House and Congress in September, Ryan Crocker, the ambassador, laid out a grim forecast of what could happen if the policy debate in Washington led to a significant pullback or even withdrawal of American forces, perhaps to bases outside the major cities.
"You can't build a whole policy on a fear of a negative, but, boy, you've really got to account for it," Crocker said Saturday in an interview at his office in Saddam Hussein's old Republican Palace, now the seat of American power here. Setting out what he said was not a policy prescription but a review of issues that needed to be weighed, the ambassador compared Iraq's current violence to the early scenes of a gruesome movie.
"In the States, it's like we're in the last half of the third reel of a three-reel movie, and all we have to do is decide we're done here, and the credits come up, and the lights come on, and we leave the theater and go on to something else," he said. "Whereas out here, you're just getting into the first reel of five reels," he added, "and as ugly as the first reel has been, the other four and a half are going to be way, way worse."
Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister, sounded a similar warning at a Baghdad news conference on Monday. "The dangers vary from civil war to dividing the country or maybe to regional wars," he said, referring to an American withdrawal. "In our estimation the danger is huge. Until the Iraqi forces and institutions complete their readiness, there is a responsibility on the U.S. and other countries to stand by the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people to help build up their capabilities."
Fearing that the last pillars of Republican support for the war were eroding, the White House invited Senators John Warner, Republican of Virginia, who has been critical of the administration's war policy, and Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, a supporter of the American troop presence, to the White House to ask them to delay votes on withdrawal until the administration delivers an interim progress report on the war, due in September.
Administration officials say Bush is considering a news conference on Iraq this week and is also likely to talk about it Tuesday during a trip to Cleveland that was intended to focus on his domestic agenda.
Although Senator Warner said he was inclined to heed the president's request to delay a vote, the Democratic leader, Senator Harry Reid, of Nevada, said Monday afternoon that he would not wait. Indeed, hours later, the Senate began debate on the National Defense Authorization Act, the main military spending bill for the next budget year — and a vehicle for trying to force the administration to change its policy.
The bill calls for the military to balance the amount of time American troops spend overseas and on American soil, a measure that would limit troop deployments to Iraq.
While Senators Richard Lugar, of Indiana, and Pete Domenici, of New Mexico, and other Republicans have publicly urged a change of course, the Senate debate is testing party alliances. Warner and Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, are set to speak Tuesday morning at a rare bipartisan meeting to discuss Iraq. And Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, said she was strongly supporting for the first time a bill with a specific timetable to remove troops from Iraq.
But the White House insisted Monday that Bush did not intend to change gears. "Don't expect us to lift a veil and have a whole different strategy," the spokesman, Tony Snow, said. "We're not going to have a strategy jumping out of a cake."
Crocker's remarks echoed warnings that have been made for months by President George W. Bush and other administration officials. But Crocker, a career diplomat,, seemed eager to emphasize that the report he and General David Petraeus are to make in September — an event Bush and his war critics have presented as a watershed moment — would represent their professional judgment, unburdened by any reflex to back administration policy.
In the interview, which was requested by The New York Times, he said, "We'll give the best assessment we can, and the most honest." Unusually for American officials here, who have generally avoided any comparisons between the situation in Iraq and the war in Vietnam, he compared the task that he and Petraeus face in reporting back in September to the one faced by Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and General Creighton Abrams Jr., the two top Americans in Vietnam when the decisions that led to the American withdrawal there were made nearly 40 years ago.
Petraeus, too, has warned in recent months that while there is a high price for staying in Iraq, including mounting American casualties, the price for leaving could be higher than many war critics have acknowledged. Some opponents of the war have argued the contrary, saying that keeping American troops in Iraq provokes much of the violence and that withdrawing could force Iraq's feuding politicians into burying their sectarian differences.
In the interview, Crocker said he based his warning about what might happen if American troops left on the realities he has seen in the four months since he took up the Baghdad post, a knowledge of Iraq and its violent history dating back to a previous Baghdad posting more than 25 years ago, and lessons learned during an assignment in Beirut in the early 1980s. Then, he said, a "failure of imagination" made it impossible to foresee the extreme violence that enveloped Lebanon as it descended into civil war. He added, "And I'm sure what will happen here exceeds my imagination."
On the potential for worsening violence after an American withdrawal from Iraq, he said: "You have to look at what the consequences would be, and you look at those who say we could have bases elsewhere in the country. Well yes, we could, but we would have the prospect of American forces looking on while civilians by the thousands were slaughtered. Not a pretty prospect."
In setting out what he called "the kind of things you have to think about" before an American troop withdrawal, the ambassador cited several possibilities. He said these included a resurgence by the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which he said had been "pretty hard-pressed of late" by the additional 30,000 troops Bush ordered deployed here this year; the risk that Iraq's 350,000-strong security forces would "completely collapse" under sectarian pressures, disintegrating into militias; and the specter of interference by Iran, neighboring Sunni Arab states and Turkey.
The ambassador also suggested what is likely to be another core element of the approach that he and Petraeus will take to the September report: that the so-called benchmarks for Iraqi government performance set by Congress in a defense authorization bill this spring may not be the best way of assessing whether the United States has a partner in the Baghdad government that warrants continued American military backing. "The longer I'm here, the more I'm persuaded that Iraq cannot be analyzed by these kind of discrete benchmarks," he said.
After the Iraqi government drew up the first list of benchmarks last year, American officials used them as their yardstick, frequently faulting the Iraqis for failure to act on them, especially on three items the Americans identified as priorities: a new oil law sharing revenue between Iraq's main population groups; a new "de-Baathification" law widening access to government jobs to members of Saddam Hussein's former ruling party; and a law scheduling provincial elections to choose representative governments in areas where Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are competing for power.
But Crocker said there were better ways to measure progress, including the levels of security across Iraq, progress in delivering basic services like electricity to the population, and steps by Iraqi leaders from rival groups to work more collaboratively.
Measured solely by the legislative benchmarks, he said, "you could not achieve any of them, and still have a situation where arguably the country is moving in the right direction. And conversely, I think you could achieve them all and still not be heading towards stability, security and overall success for Iraq."
Iraqi Warns of Turkish Threat
BAGHDAD, July 9 — Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, said Monday that neighboring Turkey had massed 140,000 troops near his country's northern border and urged it to resolve differences with dialogue.
He described a "huge buildup in our view" and said Iraq was "trying to defuse the situation."
A spokesman for the Turkish military said it had no comment on the reported troop movement.