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US can't afford to fail in Iraq: Cost of occupation

February 12, 2004

WASHINGTON: The failure thus far to find chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Iraq is at the center of Washington attention, and with good reason. The breakdown or misuse of pre- war intelligence, or both, has large implications, political and strategic , for President Bush and the United States.

But those consequences are dwarfed by the significance of success or failure in the rebuilding of Iraq. Senior administration officials are very much aware of what is at stake in the range of outcomes now possible.

The worst-case scenarios on their minds are civil war or an attempt to impose a strict Islamist theocracy, which are connected, since the latter would probably lead to the former.

Officials do not view these outcomes as foreordained or even likely. But they recognize that no matter what scheme is agreed upon for transition to Iraqi sovereignty, US power to dictate, always limited, is diminishing rapidly. "We're going to be doing a lot of negotiating for a long time," one official said, "and if you don't like that, we went into the wrong place."

The first risk comes in the vast rotation of troops now underway. Officers and soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division, the 101st Airborne Division and others have worked heroically for the past year, not only countering a vicious insurgency but also conducting civic affairs: negotiating among tribes and ethnic groups, helping schools, businesses and city councils get off the ground, mediating between Saddam Hussein's victims and his beneficiaries. Some civilians from the US occupation are also working heroically, but far fewer than those in uniform.

Now these experienced legions will flow out of the country, with a crop of rookies to take their place. The Army and Marines have planned the rotation with as much care as possible. But inevitably relationships will be ruptured - and at a time of maximum sensitivity, as the United States seeks to transfer political sovereignty while maintaining a military presence.

The questions surrounding that transfer are vexing and totally up for grabs: Can elections be held, and if not, how can a legitimate government be chosen? Will the June 30 deadline stick? What role will the United Nations play? Can the United States negotiate an agreement for the continued operation of its forces, and with whom?

But all of those are in a sense proxies for one underlying question: Can Iraq's Shia, Sunni, Kurds and smaller minorities live in one nation other than by brute compulsion? Or, as one officer wrote in an e-mail, "I am unsure if the Iraqis will be able to make the transition to sovereignty without starting a war against each other. ... We can't make them love each other, but we are trying hard to teach them that it is possible to work with each other and to agree to disagree."

Administration officials cite at least three factors working in favor of that effort. First, even after the transfer of sovereignty, US leverage - flowing from 110,000 troops and $18 billion in nation-building cash - will be considerable.

Second, although Saddam's regime brutally repressed Kurds and Shias, there is no tradition in Iraq of grass-roots ethnic violence. Intermarriages are common. All communities are represented in Baghdad today, and what violence there is in the capital is not communal.

Most important, officials posit that most Iraqis and even most Iraqi leaders want to find a way to live together, to compromise, to make Iraq work. To the extent that they behave otherwise, it is out of fear and the one thing they all share, which is, paradoxically, a sense of relative weakness: The Sunni, now in the minority, believing that the Shias will exact revenge for the way Saddam treated them; the Shias, long oppressed and impoverished, fearing they will be cheated and betrayed again, as they were in 1991; the Kurds, history's losers, vowing that history will not repeat itself.

When every side feels weak and wronged, the possibilities for strategic miscalculation are many. They are multiplied when Al Qaeda terrorists and regime die-hards are determined to wreck the process and are skilled at finding targets to sow maximum distrust: Kurdish political parties, Shia leadership, newly trained Iraqi police.

In such a situation, continued US commitment and US military presence are essential, to reassure the weak - who cannot publicly admit weakness or welcome the help - and to discourage the wreckers.

Though a UN mandate for the political transition could be crucial, replacing US soldiers with foreign troops, as proposed by some Democrats, would therefore be counter-productive (even if it were feasible). But the transition in official status from occupier to friendly invited force will require a sensitivity, a combination of aggressiveness and delicacy, that would be a challenge even for a totally prepared and unified US government.

This administration has been neither in its approach to post-war Iraq. Hopefully what it does have is a president who understands that failure would simply be too costly. -Dawn/The LAT-WP News Service (c) The Washington Post.