A third option in Iraq - the Kurds

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Opinion  A third option in Iraq - the Kurds  January 21, 2007  - Ha'aretz - by Michalis Firillas 

There's panic in Washington. Even George Bush is preparing to leave Iraq, and he has set in motion a plan for his alibi: He described the "surge" as the final chance Americans are giving the Iraqi government to fix the mess caused by the 2003 invasion. Anyone with rudimentary skills in the arithmetic of American politics can calculate that the pullout will start sometime by the second half of 2008. And since American politicians are not known for their propensity to think laterally about international relations, it will be an absolute withdrawal - which will prove to be a bigger mistake than the invasion itself. 

In cosmic terms, Iraq is a black hole. What is keeping the hole from sucking in the entire Middle East is the American presence there. If the U.S. pulls out completely from Iraq, as many wish it to do, the ensuing disintegration of Iraq and the impact on the region will give rise to challenges on a global level that will be extremely difficult to manage. This is a dilemma that American strategists have surely wrestled with for some time. 

There is, however, an option that offers many advantages, minimizes costs in American lives and assets and can potentially be used to effect greater stability in the region. The United States should not withdraw from Iraq - not entirely. Instead, the U.S. should establish a bolstered, semi-permanent presence in the most stable part of Iraq, the Kurdish-controlled north. A division-sized mix of Special Forces and other specialists, backed with air power dispersed in nearby allied countries, should be sufficient. The number of American casualties will diminish drastically, even though attacks are not likely to end completely. The unbridled draining of American assets will also be checked.  The transformation of the current American presence in Iraq from that of an occupier to a "guardian" will not end the bloodshed. That kind of peace can only come about if the historic conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ite, which reemerged in the modern Middle East when Khomeinism rose to challenge Sunni hegemony three decades ago, is resolved. That can occur if the "moderate" neighboring Sunni states and Iran forge a pragmatic solution to the conflict. Continued American presence in the Kurdish north, however, can contribute to encouraging a process in which a new format, perhaps a federal system, can be created to accommodate the strains inherent in Iraq. 

More importantly, a complete American pullout from Iraq will cause irreparable damage to U.S. prestige. There need not be a Saigon redux; what is needed is a demonstration of flexibility and innovation, a willingness to step back onto more solid ground and influence by containing, from the sidelines, the civil war unleashed by the U.S. invasion. It is also of utmost importance for Arab allies in the region - Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, countries with their own fears of militant Islam - to know that America is not throwing in the towel. Paradoxically, Syria and Iran are also terribly concerned by the regional vacuum that will follow an outright American pullout, and they would welcome a more limited U.S. presence, especially one that is accompanied by dialogue. 

An alliance with the Kurds in the north is both feasible and essential. It is feasible because the Kurds offer the one critical variable that is sorely missing in the Iraqi equation - a sense of nation, however frail and affected by other elements of identity so familiar to the Middle East. As such, unlike the impossible U.S. trapeze act with Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs in Iraq, the Kurds offer Washington something tangible with which to work. 

But the American presence in the north is essential because there is real potential for regional conflagration if the Kurds are not protected, from themselves and others. The American presence will guarantee that the Kurds will not seek independence. That is important because it will keep Turkey and Iran at bay. The former has all too often been tempted into adventures in northern Iraq. Not only will this not be tolerated by the Kurds, but Iran has already said that it will also not remain idle. While Tehran is unlikely to overtly or unilaterally enter Iraq in the south - not wishing to antagonize the Arab world - it will not hesitate to become directly involved in the north. A Turkish-Iranian clash in northern Iraq, which has been avoided in recent memory by a delicate balancing act of shared interests, restraint, and the presence of the Iraqi state, is likely to occur if the area is abandoned during an American withdrawal. 

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 undermined two structures: it toppled the nervous Sunni-Shi'ite balance; and pulled a supporting column out of the tightly packed state system of the Middle East. The U.S. can do very little about the first, and it should take its troops out of the eye of the storm. But in the case of the second, it is essential that the U.S. continue to serve as a support beam by ensuring that the chaos of Iraq does not result in a broader, regional implosion. 

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