Washington, 5 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On 30 November, President Bush gave what the White House billed as a major speech on the war in Iraq.
Opponents of the war criticized the speech for not outlining an exit strategy from Iraq.
Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), who unsuccessfully challenged Bush for the presidency in 2004, cited a survey saying 80 percent of Iraqis want Americans to withdraw. He said this can only mean that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq fuels the insurgency.
"The presence of our troops itself is a part of the current reality on the ground that presents food for the insurgency," Kerry said.
Few have challenged the accuracy of these surveys. But there is disagreement on what conclusions should be drawn from the evidence. James Phillips, who studies U.S. foreign policy and security issues at the Heritage Foundation, a private policy-research center in Washington, told RFE/RL that withdrawing the troops prematurely is not the solution.
"The presence of American troops could be a lightning rod for some strikes. [But] a sudden withdrawal could severely undercut the Iraqi government's ability to defend its own people from these terrorists," Phillips said. "So it's important that the U.S. remain a supportive presence. Eventually U.S. troops will come home, but it should be only when the Iraqis are strong enough to defend themselves."
Phillips isn't predicting when that day might come. But he said it's in the foreseeable future, given what he calls the gradually improving relations among Iraq's three principal ethnic groups.
He said the leaders of the Shi'ite majority, based in the south, have shown increasing restraint in dealing with the rival Sunnis, who dominate central Iraq. In turn, the Sunnis seem to have abandoned their reluctance to participate in the political process and work with the Shi'a, as well as the Kurds in the north.
"Over time, as they become mutually confident, there is a strong possibility for greater cooperation. And I think the Shi'ites know that they need the cooperation not only of the Sunnis but also the Kurds to preserve a unitary [unified] Iraq," Phillips said.
Retired General William Odom sees Iraq's future differently. Odom served as director of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, and is co-author of the book "America's Inadvertent Empire," a look at the United States' role in world affairs in the coming years.
Odom told RFE/RL that a U.S. withdrawal probably would bring the insurgency to an end. He noted that the focus of Al-Qaeda activity is in Sunni-dominated central Iraq. There are no Al-Qaeda operations in the Kurdish north because the Kurds won't tolerate its presence, and Al-Qaeda does little in the predominantly Shi'ite south, because, he said, "the Shi'ites will cut 'em apart."
A U.S. troop withdrawal, Odom said, will probably -- although not certainly -- mean that the Sunnis will no longer need the to cooperate with Al-Qaeda.
"What will happen if we [U.S. forces] pull out is that Al-Qaeda will go out of business there," Odom said. "It only is in business because the Sunnis need it as an ally because they [Al-Qaeda members] will kill Americans and Shi'ites. Iraq was very safe against Al-Qaeda before we [the United States] invaded. By invading, we made it open to Al-Qaeda. A withdrawal will, I think, very quickly extinguish Al-Qaeda there. The only way Al-Qaeda could stay in [Iraq] at all would be if a residual Sunni insurgency finds it useful and encourages it."
But Odom stressed that Al-Qaeda's likely departure doesn't mean the violence will end. Whether U.S. forces leave now or in 10 years, Iraq will almost certainly descend into civil war.
Odom said there are long-standing unreconciled differences among the Kurds, the Shi'a, and the Sunnis -- particularly between the Shi'a and the Sunnis. Saddam Hussein, he said, managed to suppress those differences, just as Josip Broz Tito did in the former Yugoslavia.
By deposing Hussein, Odom said, the United States allowed all these tensions to resurface. "We can't turn that around," he said. "We opened it up, now it's like once you've shot a man and killed him you can't say, 'Well, I can't afford to have committed murder.' Well, you just did."
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