Sectarian Fights Pose Risk to Iraq

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By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

America's top envoy in Baghdad yesterday denied that Iraq is now embroiled in a civil war but acknowledged growing concern that sectarian clashes could derail the new government if violence is not brought under control. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad also said the new security crackdown in Baghdad has been a disappointment and is being reviewed to make "adjustments."

"I do not believe that what's happening could be described . . . as a civil war. But there is significant sectarian violence, there's no question about that," he said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ". . . There is a risk that the sectarian conflict will expand, state institutions will be overwhelmed. And that's what needs to be avoided." For now, however, he said the government is holding together, and political parties are committed to trying to prevent a full war.

Khalilzad also warned that a "precipitous" U.S. withdrawal could ensure a sectarian war drawing in neighboring states, disrupting oil supplies and expanding current fighting into a regional conflagration. The next six months will be critical to the transition, he said.

"Given the risks of -- kind of an abandonment strategy for Iraqis, for the region and for the world, we need to do everything prudently we can to help them stand on their own feet, contain the violence," the envoy said.

Khalilzad, who is in Washington to give briefings and organize a visit by new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also said the United States and Iraq have set up a new commission to outline terms and conditions for the U.S. withdrawal of troops, bringing Iraq into the decision making process for the first time. Khalilzad and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the U.S. commander in Iraq, will meet with Maliki and other top Iraqi officials when he returns to Baghdad to begin the process.

Khalilzad's comments came on the same day that two Democratic senators just back from Baghdad warned that Iraq is close to civil war. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who is ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and has visited Iraq seven times, described Baghdad as "a city in tatters."

In a broad-brush assessment on a day when at least 60 died in a dozen bombings, Khalilzad said Americans should be patient and "strategically optimistic" about Iraq.

Sunnis generally have undergone a "tectonic shift" in their views about the new government and are increasingly turning away from the insurgency. "Many are now considering the pursuit of their goals by means other than violence," he said. Meanwhile, the majority Shiites now understand that they cannot govern Iraq alone.

A new "chasm" also now splits Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, he added. Some insurgents have even asked the government to arm them to fight foreign terrorists.

Iraq's leadership increasingly understands that reconciliation with most elements of the armed opposition -- not including foreign fighters -- is both "possible and essential" to stabilize the country, Khalilzad said.

On the ground, security forces have grown over the past year from 168,000 to 265,000. By summer's end, about 75 percent of counterinsurgency operations will be led by Iraqi units, with U.S. forces acting only as mentors or in support roles, Khalilzad said. But he acknowledged that the Iraqi military and particularly the police need to achieve greater readiness. And he said the clampdown in Baghdad was not meeting goals of decreasing the violence there. "It has not produced the results I expected so far," he said.

Khalilzad also noted the significant challenge ahead in the deferred debate on the new constitution and provisions for a federal structure that many Sunnis believe will put them at a disadvantage -- particularly when it comes to revenue from oil resources that are largely in Shiite and Kurdish areas.

Khalilzad, an Afghan American and one of the few Muslims in U.S. diplomatic ranks, charged that Iran is increasingly meddling in ways that threaten to destabilize Iraq. If it persists, he warned, the United States, Iraq and other allies will need to consider unspecified but "necessary measures" to block Tehran's arms, funds and training to extremist groups.

There are improvements along the Syrian border, which has been the main pipeline for insurgents and supplies, but Khalilzad said Syria has not changed its basic policy.

On the controversial issue of eventual amnesty, Khalilzad said there will not be a double standard for those who killed U.S. forces and others who killed Iraqis, an issue on which there are still divisions within Iraqi society.


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