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A U.S. DIPLOMAT

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

BAGHDAD For U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, any measure of the American enterprise in Iraq must include the potential price of a "traumatically failed" state. "The cost of that would be so immense for all of us. It is very important that we do all we reasonably can to see that that is not where this comes out."

Crocker said it is possible that Iraq will emerge as an "anchor of stability" in the Middle East, reiterating one prior rationale for the invasion.

The top U.S. envoy to Iraq since March 2007, Crocker, 58, now detects a "virtuous spiral" in which the political climate "does not favor violence." Even so, his assessment of whether politicians here can achieve stability is hedged: "We may have reached a point where we can expect to see Iraq's leaders grapple with increasingly complex issues; that's what they say they can do, it's certainly the way we're pushing them."

The potential remains for large-scale sectarian strife, the widening of the war and a resurgence of Sunni extremists. "With issues of this magnitude, it's probably more a question of what you're unable to imagine than what you are."

In July, after the extra U.S. troops sent to Iraq last year have gone home, Crocker wants "some consolidation and reflection." This period would mean a temporary freeze in U.S. withdrawals, and he can't say how long it should last. "It's not simply assessing what the conditions are," he said. "You have to try and think through 'How does it all change when we're not there?' " he added. "Our absence can be as substantial as our presence."

-- Cameron W. Barr

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