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The Conflict in Iraq

Report Warns of Regional Tumult

September 02, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

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

In a bleak assessment of where Iraq stands nearly 18 months after the U.S.-led invasion to depose Saddam Hussein, the report focused on the internal forces dividing the country and the external pressures that could exacerbate the situation.

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 U.S. 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.

The fragmentation of Iraq is the "default" scenario, the report says, and will 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, "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."

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

One of the authors of the report -- Rosemary Hollis, head of the institute's Middle East program -- said Wednesday in an interview that there were two messages to be drawn from the study: that the U.S. and Britain must be cautious and flexible 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. there -- should be taken into account or they could try to disrupt the transition.

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 becoming dominant.

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

The report says the breakdown of Iraq would have dire consequences for the region as well, giving religious extremists greater freedom and threatening stability in neighboring countries.

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