Think tank foresees bleak future for Iraq

Brits says civil war is very possible

John Daniszewski
Los Angeles Times
Sept. 2, 2004 12:00 AM

LONDON - Iraq will be lucky if it manages to avoid a breakup and civil war, and the country can become the spark for a vortex of regional upheaval, a report released Wednesday by Britain's highly regarded Royal Institute of International Affairs concludes.

In a bleak assessment of where Iraq stands nearly 18 months after the launch of the U.S.-led war to depose Saddam Hussein, the institute's Middle East team focused on the internal forces dividing the country and the danger that external pressures could make the tendency even worse.

The report notes that U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi called attention to the possibility of civil war during his visit to Iraq in February.

"His warnings should be heeded," it says.

At most, the report suggests, the United States and its allies can hope for a "muddle- through" scenario, holding the country together but falling short of their original goal: the creation of a full-fledged democracy friendly to the West. The United States will have to keep all of Iraq's factions "more or less on board" through a combination of clever diplomacy and military restraint, it says, while avoiding any hint of American interference in upcoming elections.

The fragmentation of Iraq is the "default" scenario, the report says, and would occur if American-led forces pull out of the country too quickly or if the U.S. government imposes its vision on the country too rigidly.

"Under this scenario," the report says. "Kurdish separatism and Shia assertiveness work against a smooth transition to elections, while the Sunni Arab minority remains on the offensive and engaged in resistance.

"Antipathy to the U.S. presence grows, not so much in a unified Iraqi nationalist backlash but rather in a fragmented manner that could presage civil war if the U.S. cuts and runs," it adds.

"Even if the U.S. forces try to hold out and prop up the central authority, it may still lose control."

The institute is an independent research body chartered by the queen; its scholars frequently advise the government and the Foreign Office on international issues.

Rosemary Hollis, head of the institute's Middle East program and one of the authors, said Wednesday in an interview that there were two messages to be drawn from the study: that the United States and Britain must be cautious and flexible in their actions in Iraq and accept that the Iraqi central government will be weak and "untidy" for the foreseeable future.

Iraq's neighbors, almost none of whom support the U.S. approach there, should be taken into account or they could try to disrupt the transition to the stable government.

"If the place holds together, it will be because all the different players muddle along together, with no one really happy," she said.

There is a convergence of interest among the Kurds, the various Shiite and Sunni factions and other groups, she said, to keep any one group from gaining dominance.

"For the time being, they will counterbalance each other for fear of anybody else winning," she said.

The report notes that one spark for a fragmentation of Iraq could be a further breakdown in security that causes "previously quiescent members of the population" to lose faith in the transitional process and to "refuse to cooperate and maybe even take up arms."

Once fragmentation begins, it suggests, all Iraqis will be drawn in.

"Such a trend is already apparent in parts of Baghdad, where reports of sectarian violence are ominously commonplace," the report says.

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