If Iraq Worsens, Allies See 'Nightmare' Case

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Wall Street Journal
January 9, 2007
Pg. 1

By Neil King Jr. and Greg Jaffe
WASHINGTON -- As President Bush prepares to unveil his latest Iraq strategy, Arab allies are worried about what might happen if the plan fails: that worsening strife could engulf the entire region, sparking a wider war in the middle of the world's largest oil patch.
The potential of a much larger regional conflict that pits Sunnis against Shiites is increasingly on the minds of both Arab leaders and U.S. military planners, according to regional diplomats and U.S. officials. Some are calling such a possible outcome the "nightmare scenario." A wider conflict appears more plausible now because, even as Iraq is separating along sectarian lines, regional dynamics are shoving neighboring nations into two rival camps.
On one side is a Shiite-led arc running from Iran into central Iraq, through Syria and into Lebanon. On the other side lie American allies Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, along with Persian Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. These Sunni regimes are horrified at the emerging, increasingly radicalized Shiite bloc, largely financed and inspired by Iran, Arab diplomats say.
In the middle is Iraq, which looks less and less like a buffer between these two axes of Middle East power, and more of a no-man's land that is bringing them into conflict. Arab officials fear that if the U.S. withdraws from there, or diminishes its troop numbers in ways that Iraq's own weak military can't fill, the two sides could come into direct and bloody conflict.
The U.S. is now eager to tamp down these rising jitters over a wider clash within the Arab world. Mr. Bush, in a televised speech tomorrow night, will detail plans for reconstruction aid and a temporary surge in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. The troop boost is meant in part to calm regional fears of a U.S. pullout. Mr. Bush is expected to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region soon to help explain his new Iraq strategy in what could be her most comprehensive trip there in more than a year.
The U.S. is also pushing a wide-ranging strategy to persuade its Sunni allies that it is serious about counteracting the rise of Iran -- in exchange for Arab help in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
Key to the effort is the continued promise to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for as long as necessary. But the U.S. is also beefing up U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf and plans to deepen security cooperation with Gulf allies. The Pentagon has proposed sending a second carrier battle group to the Gulf region. There are also advanced plans under way to knit together the air-defense systems of the six smaller Gulf states, including Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, and to build a U.S.-administered missile-defense system. Similarly, the Air Force is laying plans to step up exercises with Arab allies in the region. One proposal calls for the U.S. to hold combined air exercises with Oman and the UAE.
Contingency Plans
Arab governments are putting in place their own contingency plans in case Iraq begins to fall apart.
The Saudis have warned the Bush administration that they are prepared to aid the Sunni militias in Iraq if the Sunni population there becomes imperiled, a Saudi diplomat said. Jordanian officials have told the Pentagon that they may move troops into Iraq's uninhabited western desert as a buffer if events there spiral out of control, according to U.S. military officials. Turkish officials, who are grappling with a separatist Kurdish movement in their country, say they would oppose the creation of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq. They also say they are prepared to defend Iraq's Turkmen population, who share a common ethnicity with Turkey's majority population, should it come under attack. Even Syria, which the U.S. alleges has been abetting the conflict, is expressing alarm over the potential fracturing of Iraq.
"Can you imagine the effect of Iraq breaking apart and each group looking for a regional or international power to support their territorial claims or their ethnic claims?" asks Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador to Washington. "The repercussions will be terrible, not just for Iraq but for all the countries."
An all-out civil war in Iraq that drags in bordering countries would send shockwaves through the global oil market, potentially pushing oil prices to more than $100 a barrel, oil analysts predict. Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran together hold about two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves.
Two scholars, Kenneth Pollack at the Brookings Institution and Daniel Byman of the Rand Corp., have worked for months on a study that lays out possible consequences in a worst-case scenario, from skyrocketing oil prices to huge, destabilizing refugee flows. They argue that Iraq could become the world's premier sanctuary for terrorism and that strife there could spark minority uprisings in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria -- and even among Turkey's sizable Kurdish population.
Iraq's neighbors fear the increasing reach of Shiite Iran, whose expansion has been held in check for centuries by the Sunnis of Iraq. Among all of Iraq's neighbors, Iran is the one country that could clearly benefit from a possible breakup of Iraq along sectarian lines. The emergence of a large, oil-rich and devoutly Shiite Arab state carved from Iraq's southern half, with a government closely tied to Iran, would radically alter the face of the Middle East and grant more leverage to Shiite leaders in Tehran.
Core Fear
Another core fear is that a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq could draw in neighboring states, which would feel pressed to defend their own interests or to protect their brethren in Iraq.
Last month's bipartisan Iraq Study Group report sketched out such a potential sequence of events, based on interviews of senior Arab diplomats by the panel's top advisers. In one of the bleakest public assessments to date of what it called the "consequences of continued decline in Iraq," the report describes a potential cauldron of ethnic cleansing in Iraq that could draw in the country's main neighbors: Turkey from the north to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence; Iran from the west to secure the country's south and gain control over oil fields in that region.
"Ambassadors from neighboring countries told us that they fear the distinct possibility of Sunni-Shia clashes across the Islamic world," the report notes. "Such a broader sectarian conflict could open a Pandora's box of problems -- including the radicalization of populations, mass movements of populations, and regime changes -- that might take decades to play out."
Some of the study group's top advisers contend that the process of ethnic cleansing, particularly by Iraqi Shiites trying to rid cities and regions of their Sunni populations, is already under way. "We may be about one-third through the process, with little ability to do anything about it," says Wayne White, a former Middle East intelligence official at the State Department.
But critics of the panel's core recommendation -- that the U.S. begin a rapid drawdown of American combat forces in Iraq that would culminate in a full withdrawal of combat troops by early 2008 -- say such a move would leave a military vacuum in Iraq that could open the way for an upsurge in Shiite violence against the Sunnis in Iraq.
The Sunni-Shiite split goes back to the early days of Islam, when a bloody feud broke out over which of the Prophet Muhammad's descendants should lead the Muslim faithful. Sunnis now predominate throughout the Middle East, with the exception of Iran. Shiites have recently experienced a resurgence in influence in the region, not just with the rise of Iran but also with the Shiite ascendancy in Iraq and Hezbollah's success in fighting Israel in Lebanon last summer.
High-level Arab officials have been warning for months that if left unchecked, the current slide into chaos in Iraq could spark a regional sectarian clash, according to U.S. and Arab diplomats. They have begun to share their contingency plans with top U.S. officials, in part because they hope to jolt the Bush administration into taking stronger action in Iraq and to secure the continued presence of U.S. troops there.
Jordanian officials have suggested that if Iraq were to fall into a full-out civil war, Jordan would push troops to the border, and possibly across it, as far west as Rutbah about 80 miles inside Iraq, to stem an expected flow of Sunni refugees, says a U.S. military planner who recently met with leaders in the region.
"The danger is that if the Jordanians carve out a security zone or buffer zone inside Iraq, that the Syrians, Saudis and Turks will all follow," says the military planner. The Syrians could move into western Nineveh province, while the Turks could send troops to protect the Sunni Turkmen population in the north, he says.