By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 9 -- Politicians from Iraq's major parties and ethnic groups said Monday that Iraq's government could collapse, plunging the nation into full-blown civil war and sparking regional conflict, if the United States were to begin withdrawing troops too quickly.
The warnings were issued as Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari also asserted that Turkey has massed 140,000 troops along its border with Iraq to stage a possible cross-border assault against Kurdish separatists.
If true, the Turkish buildup would raise fears of another front opening up in a country already facing myriad conflicts. But State Department officials in Washington were skeptical about the assertion.
Zebari told reporters in Baghdad that Iraqi officials "understand the huge pressure" building in the United States for a troop withdrawal. But "the dangers could be a civil war, dividing the country, regional wars and the collapse of the state," Zebari said. "We have held discussion with members of Congress and explained to them the dangers of a quick pullout and leaving a security vacuum."
Zebari, a Kurd, declared that until Iraqi forces were ready to provide security, the United States had a responsibility to support the government. Iraq's Kurdish leaders are among the strongest supporters of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The issue of a U.S. troop withdrawal anytime soon provokes rare unity among Iraqi leaders largely divided along sectarian and religious lines. All of Iraq's major warring parties view the U.S. military presence, at least for the time being, as essential to their pursuit of power and position.
An early withdrawal, Sunnis worry, would allow Iraq's Shiite majority to dominate them and Shiite Iran's influence to grow in Iraq and the region. Shiites, roiled by their own internal rivalries, are concerned that Iraq's authoritarian Sunni neighbors would undermine any democratic Shiite government, especially a weak one, by backing Sunni insurgents. Kurds are worried about, among other things, a Turkish invasion to stop separatist Kurdish rebels staging attacks into Turkey from northern Iraq.
If the Americans withdraw, said Hassan al-Suneid, a Shiite legislator and adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, "the militias and the armed groups will attack each other, and that means a sure civil war."
"What concerns me really is that U.S. troops might submit to the Democrats' decision and withdraw without thinking about Iraq's situation and what will happen to the Iraqi people," Suneid said.
Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni politician, said he could not comprehend the growing pressure for a troop withdrawal at a time when signs of progress are emerging. He cited Sunni tribal leaders turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni group that claims allegiance to the organization led by Osama bin Laden.
"If a withdrawal happens, there won't be any trust in the Middle East of American foreign policy," Alusi said. "We will not only have a war inside Iraq, but an official Iranian invasion into Iraq. Who is going to the fill the vacuum? Al-Qaeda, Iran and the internal war."
Like Zebari, Suneid and Alusi said U.S. troops should withdraw only after Iraqi forces are properly trained. In recent months, even politicians loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has long called for a U.S. withdrawal, have said that a pullout should take place once Iraq's police and army are capable of protecting Iraq.
On Monday, Zebari said Iraq's government cannot dispatch troops to secure the border with Turkey because they were already stretched by fighting the insurgency in Baghdad and nearby Diyala province.
"Our military forces are over-occupied with securing the streets," he said, "and we do not have forces enough to open a new front."
For 23 years, Turkey has been fighting separatist Kurdish rebels belonging to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a group that the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. The Turkish government has long complained that Iraq's Kurdish authorities have done little to stop the separatist fighters. In recent months, the Turkish government has said it would stage cross-border incursions if needed.
Zebari said that Turkey's "fears are legitimate" but that "the perfect solution is the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the borders," followed by diplomatic negotiations involving the United States, Iraq and Turkey.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there was "a substantial presence of Turkish troops that are engaged in counterterrorism operations" in southeast Turkey. Such a deployment, he said, was not unusual because the Kurdistan Workers' Party typically stages attacks in the spring. He expressed skepticism about Zebari's 140,000 figure.
"I would steer you away from that number of troops being immediately along the border," McCormack said.
Also Monday, a car bomb exploded near a restaurant in the Harithiya district of central Baghdad, killing eight people and injuring five, police said.
In Balad, about 50 miles north of the capital, a roadside bomb exploded near an Iraqi army patrol, followed by an assault by gunmen, police said. The clashes claimed the lives of nine soldiers and wounded 21. Across Baghdad on Monday, police said they found 17 unidentified corpses, most blindfolded and shot in the head and chest.
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, K.I. Ibrahim and Dahlia Farooq contributed to this report.