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IRAQ - Regional War Scenarios Discounted.

Long before Bush began selling the surge in Iraq as a way to avert a general war in the Middle East, observers were concerned about the potential for armed conflict among regional powers. Underlying this was a scenario in which Iraq's violence spills over into neighbouring countries, producing conflicts between the major Arab states and Iran as well as Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq. But such scenarios have been discounted by experts in the US.

In a joint article published on June 28, 2007, Steven A. Cook and Ray Takeyh, fellows at the US Council on Foreign Relations, and Suzanne Maloney who is a senior fellow at Saban Centre of the Brookings Institution, the three experts conclude that the Middle East is a region both prone and accustomed to civil wars, adding: "But given its experience with ambiguous conflicts, the region has also developed an intuitive ability to contain its civil strife and prevent local conflicts from enveloping the entire Middle East. Iraq's civil war is the latest tragedy of this hapless region, but still a tragedy whose consequences are likely to be less severe than both supporters and opponents of Bush's war profess".

Outsiders like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey involved in Iraq have so much at stake in its future that it is natural they would seek to influence developments in the country. Yet, the Saudis, Iranians, Jordanians, Syrians, and others are unlikely to go to war to protect their own sect or ethnic group or to prevent one country from gaining the upper hand in Iraq.

Middle Eastern rulers, like politicians everywhere, are primarily interested in one thing: self-preservation. Committing forces to Iraq is an inherently risky proposition, which, if the conflict went badly, could threaten domestic political stability. Moreover, most Arab armies are geared towards regime protection rather than projecting power and thus have little capability for sending troops to Iraq.

There is cause for concern about the so-called "blowback scenario" in which Neo-Salafis returning from Iraq destabilise their home countries, plunging the region into conflict. Middle East rulers are preparing for this possibility. But unlike in the 1990s, when Arab fighters in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union returned to Algeria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia and became a source of instability, Arab security services are vigilant about who is coming in and going from their countries. In the last two months, the Saudi government has arrested more than 260 people suspected of ties with Neo-Salafi militants. Riyadh is building a 700-km wall along part of its border with Iraq to keep militants out of the kingdom.

There is no precedent for Arab rulers to commit forces to conflicts in which they are not directly involved. The Iraqis and the Saudis did send small contingents to fight the Israelis in 1948 and 1967, but they were either ineffective or never made it. In the 1970s and 1980s, Arab states other than Syria, which had a compelling interest in establishing hegemony over Lebanon, never committed forces either to protect the Lebanese from the Israelis or from other Lebanese. The civil war in Lebanon was regarded as someone else's fight. Indeed, this is the way many leaders view the current situation in Iraq.

To Cairo, Amman and Riyadh, the situation in Iraq is worrisome, but in the end it is an Iraqi and US fight. As far as Iran's Shi'ite theocracy is concerned, it has long preferred to press its interests through proxies as opposed to direct engagement. At a time when Tehran has access and influence over powerful Shi'ite militias, a massive cross-border incursion is both unlikely and unnecessary. So Iraqis will remain locked in a sectarian and ethnic struggle which outside powers may abet, but will remain within the borders of Iraq.

The Time It Takes For US Pull-Out: Former US military officials who have managed troop exits before say even if the decision came tomorrow to remove all 160,000 American troops from Iraq now, it could take as long as 18 months to do it. Sooner or later, US forces will leave Iraq. But that political decision cannot be made in isolation; it must take into account the logistics of departure, which will be neither simple nor speedy.

Unlike other withdrawals from, say, Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War, Neo-Salafis and other bad actors are expected to contest US forces as they leave. The Christian Science Monitor on Aug. 6 quoted retired Army Lt. Gen. William Pagonis, who oversaw the withdrawal of nearly half a million US troops and hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment from Saudi Arabia in 1991 over a seven-month period, as saying of a US military withdrawal from Iraq: "There is no way they're going to pull out of that theater as fast as everyone thinks". He says the US should start withdrawing its forces soon - but without a published timetable - and expects it will take as long as 18 months to get the bulk of them out.

Withdrawal means different things to different people. Depending on how the war goes, the Bush administration could push for more time and then begin a gradual withdrawal in 2008. Democrats in Congress, so far unable to halt implementation of the administration's "surge" strategy in Iraq, may yet be able to force a faster removal of troops. Most agree that a "residual force" of untold size is likely to remain in Iraq for some time. Whether a withdrawal is full or partial, it is clearly on the collective mind of Congress.

On Aug. 2, Senate Armed Services Committee members received a private briefing from Pentagon officials about the Defence Department's withdrawal plan, after a public tit-for-tat between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York and the Pentagon on the matter. Sen. Clinton, a presidential candidate who is leading in polls among Democrats, would not comment on what she learned from the briefing. She said: "We did not have a smart plan to go in", characterising the deployment as a "combination of arrogance and incompetence". She added: "But we will do everything in our power to be sure we have a smart plan to get out". A smart plan will take time to execute, warn former military officials.

When hostilities ended after the first Gulf War, more than 5,000 troops were flown out each day, and equipment was scrubbed clean to comply with US agricultural regulations. About 400 ship loads were needed to get all the equipment out. The US has only about one-third as much equipment and personnel in the region now as it did in 1990. Still, Pagonis says this departure will be far more complicated. US forces this time are likely to have to fight their way out as they hand the country over to the Iraqi government, a scenario which is reminiscent more of the Vietnam War than Gulf War I.

Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general and adviser to the Pentagon, says: "It's possible, even likely, that Iran among others would try to humiliate us on the way out, so you'd have to plan for a fighting withdrawal". If the Bush administration were to opt to leave most of the military's equipment and facilities in Iraq, forces could be removed in a little more than three months, he says. But it is more advisable for US forces to exit gradually over more than a year when the time comes, says McCaffrey, who does not support an American withdrawal now.

Fast or slow, a departure poses challenges for planners. One option is to remove most forces the way they entered, through Kuwait, which minimises the number of forces needed for guard duty for a contested departure. But amassing troops in one area would leave US forces particularly vulnerable, say former commanders. It also creates logjams.

A veteran of the first Gulf War, then a captain, remembers enduring six weeks in Saudi Arabia waiting to go home. They ran low on food with nothing to do. They had to move to different camps, only to wait longer. He says: "Everybody knew this was going to take a little bit of time to get everybody home because there were so many of us". The veteran, who now works in Congress, adds: "But somewhere along the line, it became unglued". Others say it would be more advisable to use Turkey and Jordan, as well as Kuwait, as exit points. Some say although that would require more forces for guard duty, it would allow a more orderly and "coherent" way out. A number of US forces will probably have to stay in Iraq, but how many will depend on the security situation there and how much equipment will be left behind.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, whose last job was training the new Iraqi Army, says: "We will not draw down from 160,000 to zero. We will draw down from 160,000 to a force that would be able to continue the development of the Iraqi security forces and...that would provide for [US] security". He wants withdrawal to begin soon, as a way to exert some discipline on the "underperforming" Iraqi government. Ultimately, a US departure from Iraq will be difficult, complex, and painstaking, says the former Gulf War veteran now working in Congress.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Date:Aug 13, 2007
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