Washington (AFP) Nov 17, 2008
Washington and Baghdad are moving closer to clinching a security pact that highlights Iraq's growing stability but also the blood and treasure that all sides have spent to achieve modest gains.
Iraq may no longer be descending into the civil war feared just two years ago, but it is a far cry from the "Eden on the Euphrates" hinted at before the Bush administration launched the invasion in 2003, analysts say.
Although risks remain, Iraq has started to achieve a semblance of stability in the last 18 months, analysts add.
And the State Department hails what it calls a democratic process in Iraq that is producing a pact to replace a UN mandate that expires at the end of this year and allow US forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011.
If approved, "you will have had an agreement signed between the United States and a democratic Iraq, a democratic Iraq that is in the heart of the Middle East," department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Monday.
"And that will change the Middle East forever for the positive," he said.
But analysts -- who heard the Bush administration offer rosy scenerios for Iraq before the invasion -- take such remarks with a grain of salt.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, recalls that President George W. Bush's administration forecast a quick victory in Iraq that would transform Iraqi and the regional politics.
It was a "wild illusion" to think that a foreign invasion would "produce overnight a stable democratic Iraq, which in turn would create a tsunami of democracy across the region," Carnegie President Jessica Matthews wrote.
If anything, there has been "more authoritarianism in the region because of greater political unrest," wrote Matthews at the time of the invasion's fifth anniversary.
"We have empowered Iran, we have made the region less stable," Matthews lamented.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in the conflict which she also noted has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 US troops and cost Washington more than one trillion dollars. Hundreds of coalition troops have also died.
And no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
However, writing in the October/November edition of Foreign Affairs, Stephen Biddle, Michael O'Hanlon, and Kenneth Pollack pointed to a more positive trend, even if they do not necessarily see a democratic Iraq rise from the ashes.
As violence falls partly as a result of a US troop surge, the Iraqi army and the police are boosting both their capacity to protect Iraqis and to work as national rather than sectarian units, their article said.
It said the security forces have made strides toward recruiting Sunni Muslim Arabs, who used to dominate Iraq's security and other institutions under Saddam Hussein but who lost power to Shiite Muslims and Kurds after his overthrow.
But the army and police, according to the article in the specialist magazine, "remain dependent on US and British troops to assist with planning and provide logistical and fire support."
Iraq's senior leaders have meanwhile struck compromises to pass a budget law, an amnesty for former insurgents, and a pensions law, the authors note.
But they warn: "Legislative progress on reconciliation continues to be slow, factional and sectarian differences remain divisive, and there is still no new political alignment or movement with the power to bridge these divides."
The authors write that Iraq could still be plunged into civil war through an "electoral crisis," and that a stronger army might one day be tempted to stage a coup with a political clique.
The United States must continue to nurture Iraq's fragile institutions and conduct troop withdrawals carefully to benefit from the new trends, according to the article.
If so, it could emerge "with something that may still fall well short of Eden on the Euphrates but that prevents the horrors of all-out civil war, avoids the danger of a wider war, and yields a stability that endures as Americans come home."
US pullout of Iraq should depend on conditions: Mullen
"I do think it is important that this be conditions-based," Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.
A US-Iraqi agreement approved over the weekend by the Iraqi cabinet calls for all 150,000 US troops to be out of the country by the end of 2001 regardless of the conditions on the ground.
President-elect Barack Obama set an even tighter deadline of 16 months during the campaign.
In a television interview Sunday, Obama he would call in the Joint Chiefs after his inauguration and "start executing a plan that draws down our troops."
Mullen said he would offer his advice to the new president, who takes office on January 20, and then follow his orders.
"Should president-elect Obama give me direction, I would carry that out. I mean, that's what I do as a senior member of the military."
Referring to the 2011 deadline contained in the so-called Status of Forces Agreement reached with Baghdad, Mullen said, "I certainly understand the boundaries."
But he suggested the deal might be revisited at some point between now and then.
"And so three years is a long time. Conditions could change in that period of time," said Mullen, adding the United States will continue to talk with Baghdad "as conditions continue to evolve."
Asked if the agreement could be changed, he said "that's theoretically possible."
Mullen said he had discussed the agreement with General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Middle East and southwest Asia, and General Raymond Odierno, the US commander in Iraq.
"We're all very comfortable that we have what we need. Conditions continue to improve," he said.
"Clearly, moving forward in a measured way, tied to conditions as they continue to evolve over time is important," he added.
Mullen said it would take two to three years to safely withdraw all US forces from Iraq.
"It is very doable, but it's not the kind of thing that we could do overnight," he said.
"To remove the entire force would be, you know, two to three years, as opposed to something we could do in a very short period of time, as we've looked at it thus far.
"Clearly, we'd want to be able to do it safely. So when I talk about that kind of range of time, it really is conditioned by what's going on," he said.
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