Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Dec 20 2006 (IPS) — Warning that Iraq faces ”complete disintegration into failed-state chaos,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) is calling on the United States to make a ”clean break” in its strategy for both Iraq and the wider Middle East region.

In a new report released Tuesday, the Brussels-based group endorsed many of the key recommendations submitted two weeks ago by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG), headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former Republican Lee Hamilton, including initiating direct talks with Iran and Syria, as part of a regional effort to stabilise Iraq.

But the 44-page report, ‘After Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq’, stressed that some of the ISG recommendations are ‘’not nearly far-reaching enough.”

It criticised, in particular, the ISG’s characterisation of the current government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ‘’broadly representative of the Iraqi people” and its recommendation that Washington work to strengthen it.

‘’Hollowed-out and fatally weakened, the Iraqi state today,” the report asserted, ‘’is prey to armed militias, sectarian forces and a political class that, by putting short-term personal benefit ahead of long-term national interests, is complicit in Iraq’s tragic destruction.”

‘’The government and security forces should not be treated as privileged allies to be bolstered. They are but one among many parties to the conflictà” the report stressed, adding that all Iraqi parties, as well as their foreign backers, must be brought to the table if the worst is to be avoided.

‘’We are looking at Iraq’s complete disintegration into failed-state chaos, threatening to drag down much of the region with it,” said ICG president Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister. ‘’What is needed above all is a new multi-national effort to achieve a new political compact between all relevant players.”

The ICG study comes one day after the release of an alarming new Pentagon report confirming that attacks against U.S. forces and civilians in Iraq reached new highs – at nearly 1,000 per week – from August through November despite the deployment of nearly 20,000 additional U.S. troops to try to curb violence in Baghdad over the same period.

‘’The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace,” Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, a top official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters here Monday. ‘’We have to get ahead of that violent cycle, break that continuous chain of sectarian violence…”

The sharp rise in violence – and the apparent inability of the U.S. troops to contain, let alone reduce, it – is certain to raise new doubts here about the wisdom of sending yet more troops to the 140,000 who are already in Iraq.

President George W. Bush, who has been mulling various proposals for a change in strategy since the ISG released its recommendations two weeks ago, has reportedly been leaning in favour of a so-called ‘’surge” option that would dispatch as many as 50,000 more troops to Iraq over the coming months to pacify Baghdad and al-Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency is strongest.

That idea, which has been put forward most aggressively by several retired generals, Republican Senator John McCain, and some of the same neo-conservatives at the American Enterprise Institute and the ‘Weekly Standard’ who helped lead the drive to war in Iraq in 2003, has reportedly run into strong resistance from the Joint Chiefs.

During his briefing Tuesday, Sattler himself appeared skeptical that additional U.S. troops would be effective, and, in his first public break with the administration since he left it two years ago former secretary of state Colin Powell û himself a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs û agreed with the ISG that Washington should begin reducing its troops in Iraq rather than adding to them.

While the ICG report did not explicitly address the ‘’surge” option, it noted that the debate regarding appropriate troops levels is largely ‘’disconnected from ground realities” in Iraq. ‘’More troops û in or outùare not going to solve this,” according to Evans, who stressed that the only way to redress the situation and avert the risk of a ‘’regional conflagration” is through political compromise by all Iraqi parties and their regional supporters.

The report endorsed the ISG’s call for convening an International Support Group comprising the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and all of Iraq’s neighbours committed to engaging in ‘’sustained multilateral diplomacy.”

‘’Regional actors are taking measures in anticipation of the outcome they most fear: Iraq’s descent into all-out chaos and fragmentation,” according to the ICG. ‘’By increasing support for some Iraqi actors against others, their actions have all the wisdom of a self-fulfilling prophecy: steps that will accelerate the very process they claim to wish to avoid.”

The primary aim of the Support Group would be to forge a ‘’new, more equitable and inclusive national compact,” that would include militias and insurgent groups, as well as the government, ‘’on issues such as federalism, resource allocation, de-Baathification, the scope of the amnesty and the timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.”

That will necessarily require Washington to engage Iran and Syria, a key step advocated by the ISG, but so far rejected by the Bush administration which has tried to sanction and isolate both countries as part of strategy to ‘’transform” the Middle East.

‘’For as long as the Bush administration’s paradigm remains fixated around regime change, forcibly remodelling the Middle East, or waging a strategic struggle against an alleged axis composed or Iran, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas, neither Damascus nor Tehran will be willing to offer genuine assistance,” according to the report, which called for a ‘’clear redefinition of Washington’s objectives.”

‘’The goal is not to bargain with them (Iran and Syria), but to seek agreement on an end-state for Iraq and the region that is no one’s first choice, but with which everyone can live,” it went on.

‘’An approach that does not entail a clean break vis-à-vis both Iraq and the region at best will postpone what, increasingly, is looking like the most probable scenario: Iraq’s collapse into a failed and fragmented state, an intensifying and long-lasting civil war, as well as increased foreign meddling that risks metastasising into a broad proxy war” that is unlikely to be contained within Iraq’s borders, the report argued.


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