Iraq surge’s advocates fear gains will be lost

Fragile democracy at risk, they warn

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The outside advisers who worked to persuade President Bush in 2006 to send a “surge” of reinforcement troops to Iraq now fear their efforts are on the verge of being erased.

Iraq has spiraled into a sectarian political crisis and suffered several deadly bombings since the last U.S. combat troops left on Dec. 18. Al Qaeda in Iraq, a terrorist group all but destroyed by the surge’s pinpoint raids and airstrikes, claimed it carried out the biggest blast on Monday.

The advisers comprise some of the best national security minds in Washington - strategists such as retired ArmyGen. John Keane, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.

They banded together in 2006 to devise a reinforcement strategy and sell it to the White House, as the U.S. appeared to be losing the Iraq campaign to sectarian violence and al Qaeda bombings.

They had a willing warrior in Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq, and they met with White House officials, including Mr. Bush, to sell the plan.

By 2007, more troops flowed into the country and the tide of battle shifted to the U.S.

But now, less than two weeks after the last U.S. troops crossed into Kuwait, the band of advisers is becoming pessimistic.

Mr. Biddle told The Washington Times that the U.S. has missed the lessons from the Balkans, where U.S. troops remain today as a safeguard against ethnic violence, 12 years after NATO’s intervention.

He said that, using the former Yugoslavia as a template, Washington at this stage of Iraq’s fledgling democracy should maintain half the surge force, about 80,000. A politically viable number would be about 20,000, he said.

“The peacekeeping presence in the Balkans started big, but then ramped down quite dramatically but slowly, and the result is a place that has stayed reasonably stable,” Mr. Biddle said.

“What we’ve got in Iraq is a situation where Sunni and Shia are still very wary of each other, as stands to reason they would be. The process of getting used to each other does happen, but it’s slow and it takes time, and it hasn’t had nearly enough time in Iraq,” he said.

“The point is, do people who were shooting each other for their identity two or three years ago trust each other now? And the answer is, of course, they don’t. You need an outside party to keep everybody calm. I think it’s a mistake for us to have left when we did.”

The Balkans peacekeeping force operates in Kosovo to protect its population from neighboring Serbia. U.S. troops make up about 1,400 of the 6,600-troop contingent.

Iraq’s power vacuum now puts Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a position to exert authoritarian rule. His Shiite-led government chose the first day after U.S. forces exited to issue an arrest warrant for the highest elected Sunni in government, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges.

Asked whether Iraq is unraveling, Mr. Biddle said: “I think there is a serious danger that it will. I think probably the likeliest single case is we won’t get a return to civil war, but we will [see more] violence in the hands of Maliki and something that looks like a Shiite Saddam Hussein in two or three years.”

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