Iraq's neighbors fear premature U.S. departure

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - As U.S. occupation forces in Iraq face increasingly sophisticated resistance, some of Iraq's neighbors are beginning to caution against an early American pullout that could leave the region at the mercy of uncontrollable tensions.

Even though most regional governments opposed the U.S. invasion and Arab public opinion remains hostile to the occupation, Iraq's neighbors are starting to worry about the consequences of an American failure to stabilize Iraq.

"We hope the U.S. has staying power. Withdrawal will leave even a bigger chaos," said Karim Kawar, Jordan's ambassador to Washington. "It's important to be able to have patience."

Kuwaiti diplomat Tareq Al-Mezrem added, "Everybody wants America not to leave Iraq prematurely."

President Bush insisted last week that American forces will "stay the course" in Iraq despite a rising death toll that has claimed more soldiers' lives since May 1, when major operations ended, than during the invasion. Congress is poised to supply the full $87 billion Bush sought to continue military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan well into next year.

But even as Bush made the pledge, the International Red Cross and the United Nations were preparing to reduce their staffs in Iraq after a series of bombings Monday that killed about 34 people, including two Red Cross employees.

Pressure from the public and Congress in the past has pushed the White House to cut short military missions in world hotspots, including Lebanon in 1984 and Somalia in 1993.

"It's also important to convey to the American public ... this is not easy. It's a major undertaking," Kawar said.

Fear of instability in Iraq has long haunted the country's neighbors and led many of them to tolerate for years the brutal and belligerent regime of Saddam Hussein as a necessary evil, one that prevented the oil-rich nation from splintering into competing Sunni, Shia and Kurdish ministates.

Now that fear is coupled with anger over the open-ended presence of 130,000 U.S. troops in an Arab country and with suspicions that the United States is bent on toppling other governments in a drive to reshape the region.

"I'm not sure most [Arab] leaders want the U.S. to fail. They're very worried about the implications of what happens in Iraq for their own regimes," a senior administration official said. "There is an extremely nervous mood on the part of Arab leaders right now."

This helps to explain why Persian Gulf countries - even those that publicly opposed the war - gave quiet but indispensable support to the invasion and why a number of Iraq's neighbors sent delegations to last month's donors' conference in Madrid and pledged varying amounts to help rebuild the country.

"The Arab world is scared overall," said one Arab diplomat, who did not want to be quoted by name or have his country identified. "Some people are scared that if the United States is able to extinguish the violence, it will be arrogant" and start pursuing "regime change" elsewhere.

"A second group is scared that the U.S. will pull out fast and leave behind chaos. Iraq, wounded, will be ready to retaliate. Jordan and Kuwait would be first to pay the price," the diplomat added. "Either scenario is not good."

Many Arab leaders opposed the U.S. invasion, fearing that a war would further inflame a volatile region angered by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Their worries about a refugee crisis, the spread of disease and a spillover of violence proved unfounded. Nevertheless, "they were vindicated in a way in that Iraq has become destabilized," said Hussein Hassona, the Arab League's ambassador here. "There is no real reconstruction, let alone a return to democracy."

Arab officials are quick to point out what they view as errors by American administrators in Iraq, particularly the U.S. decisions to disband the Iraqi army, leaving a security vacuum that U.S. troops are still unable to fill, and the failure to rebuild a strong central government.

"We believe more time should have been invested in planning 'the day after,'" Kawar said. Noting U.S. planners' beliefs that American troops would be welcomed and that Iraq's large Shiite population would uniformly cooperate with the occupiers, Kawar said, "All of these assumptions proved to be wrong."

In Turkey, Iraq's non-Arab northern neighbor, anxiety is growing, said Soner Cagaptay, a specialist on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "If, God forbid, it falls apart and the U.S. loses control, it's only going to get worse for Turkey."

After refusing to allow U.S. forces to invade Iraq via Turkey, Ankara won parliamentary approval last month to send troops to help stabilize the country, a force that officials said could number 10,000. However, the deployment is now unlikely to occur.

Among the Turkish elite, there is always "a certain amount of unease over very fast changes in the region," Cagaptay said.

A senior Turkish official said Turkey has always had "a high level of concern" about Iraq, but added: "The United States is going to succeed. We believe in it. We're ready to assist in it."

In Egypt, officials fear that a U.S. preoccupation with problems in Iraq will cause the Bush administration to retreat even further from efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Several Arab commentators have openly praised the Iraqi resistance forces, although some criticized attacks that killed Iraqi civilians and staff members at the Red Cross and U.N. humanitarian agencies.

"Arab leaders must declare unequivocally that resistance in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon is a legitimate right, and that the Americans must leave," wrote commentator Mohammad Ali al-Herfi in the Saudi daily al-Watan.

In the London-based Arab newspaper al-Hayat, columnist Jihad al-Khazen wrote about last Sunday's rocket attack on a Baghdad hotel housing a high-level U.S. delegation.

"I was happy that Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense, survived the bombing of Al Rashid hotel," he wrote, "as I wish him and the rest of the neo-conservatives to live long enough to witness the consequences of the crime they committed against Iraq and its people, under the pretext of overthrowing a criminal regime."

In an interview, al-Khazen said that "many people are happy" that the United States is now getting its nose bloodied in Iraq.

"I've heard people say that if the U.S. establishes whatever it wants in Iraq, Americans will target Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Egypt. If the U.S. gets discouraged in Iraq, others will be safe."

But satisfaction at seeing the United States encounter difficulty in Iraq doesn't necessarily mean that these observers want the violence to become worse, particularly if it brings added suffering to Iraqis.

A second al-Hayat commentator, Ghassan Charbel, wrote last week about the regional fallout from continued bloodshed in Iraq, asking what the Iraq confrontation will lead to in several years.

"What would the neighboring countries do with their public opinion?" he asked. "What would they do with those returning from Iraq while they are still confused with those returning from Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya?"

Although no one seems to fully understand the sources of the Iraqi insurgency, one Arab diplomat said Baathists appear to be behind much of the insurgency: "It would be really helpful to catch Saddam," he said. Several Arab commentators agree that Iraq is becoming a magnet for anti-American extremists from around the region.

"The Arab world thinks the real victim is the Iraqi people. They had 12 years of sanctions, and now they're faced with terrible agony," Hassona said.

The violence hampering reconstruction efforts is also having an economic impact, discouraging new business investment in Iraq.

In Lebanon's English-language Daily Star, editor Rami G. Khouri wrote: "We should not turn a difficult situation into a catastrophic one by looking for instant solutions. A hasty American retreat from Iraq would probably lead to political chaos, internal fighting and regional complications."

However, he added, "a prolonged American presence would generate more anti-American political and military resistance in Iraq and throughout the region, and would make a shambles of the U.N.-based global peacemaking system."

Khouri, along with other Arab commentators and diplomats, said the answer for the United States is to hasten a transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis and to encourage greater involvement by neighboring countries and the international community in Iraq's reconstruction.

Kawar sees the U.S. belatedly adopting "a more realistic approach."

"If it's a prize, no one wants to share it. If it's a liability, they want to get others involved," he said.

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