A veteran Middle East hand offers his view on the impact of a hasty pull-out from Iraq.
Political pressure on President Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq is gathering momentum. He should resist it. Basing a pull-out on political calculations rather than the situation on the ground will have momentous and adverse effects for the United States throughout the Arab world.
Would a sudden and massive withdrawal of American troops force Iraqi confessional groups to come together to avoid the bloodshed that almost all Iraqis dread, or would it simply precipitate a general civil war, similar to the one in Lebanon, or even the 1970 Jordanian-Palestinian conflict? Or would the massive power vacuum created invite the occupation of various parts of Iraq by Iranian and Turkish troops?
None of these scenarios is likely. Until the new Iraqi government has attained a general legitimacy and established a degree of control over Iraq, any large-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops will result not in a sudden dramatic disintegration but in a gradual erosion of the Iraqi state and of stability throughout the Middle East.
To begin with, definitions of what is meant by legitimacy and control have to be fairly specific. Legitimacy does not mean establishing a government of universal acclaim and popularity. The ferocity of the Sunni insurgent attacks on the Shi'a population and their obstructionist attitude toward the political process suggest their objective is to control Iraq rather than simply have an equitable part in governing. Their historical sense of superiority and widespread belief-despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary-that they are a numerical majority feeds this. They are being spurred by money and support from the outside Arab Sunni world, fearful of some sort of "Shi"a arc." King Abdullah II of Jordan used this term to express his apprehension of a swath of Shi'a-controlled territory emerging, that would extend from Iran through Iraq, Syria, and southern Lebanon. In actuality the Alawis of Syria (a distant offshoot of Shi"ism), who constitute about 15% of the population, are not really thought of as fellow Shi'a by the Iraqi Shi'a. This Sunni fear, combined with a general tendency among Western scholars and journalists to view Shi'a Arabs as religious fanatics and extremists, supports the mantra that without full Sunni support any government freely elected will be dead on arrival.
Neither does control imply tight government presence in every village and square mile of Iraq. That was not true even under the draconian rule of Saddam Hussein. Kurdish and border areas near Syria and Iran will always be areas of tenuous government control. Revenge killings and sectarian strife will not be eliminated. For the U.S.-led Coalition to withdraw, an Iraqi government elected by a majority must have essential control of the major cities, especially Baghdad, and the provincial capitals. The government must also secure the transportation arteries between them, as well as the oil fields and pipelines. If the Coalition leaves before these conditions are met, then the Iraqi state will begin to erode and disintegrate.