Envoy to Iraq Sees Threat of Wider War

He supports the White House view that an early pullout would backfire, but he is bleak about the Sunni-Shiite conflict and says it could spread.

By Borzou Daragahi

Los Angeles Times

March 7, 2006

BAGHDAD — The top U.S. envoy to Iraq said Monday that the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime had opened a "Pandora's box" of volatile ethnic and sectarian tensions that could engulf the region in all-out war if America pulled out of the country too soon.

In remarks that were among the frankest and bleakest public assessments of the Iraq situation by a high-level American official, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the "potential is there" for sectarian violence to become full-blown civil war.

For now, Iraq has pulled back from that prospect after the wave of sectarian reprisals that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine in Samarra, he said. But "if another incident [occurs], Iraq is really vulnerable to it at this time, in my judgment," Khalilzad said in an interview with The Times.

Abandoning Iraq in the way the U.S. disengaged from civil wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Somalia could have dramatic global repercussions, he said.

"We have opened the Pandora's box and the question is, what is the way forward?" Khalilzad said. "The way forward, in my view, is an effort to build bridges across [Iraq's] communities."

Khalilzad's central message that the United States cannot immediately pull out of Iraq jibed with Bush administration policy. But he offered a far gloomier picture than assessments made in recent days by U.S. military spokesmen.

On Sunday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a televised interview that things in Iraq were "going very, very well, from everything you look at."

Khalilzad's comments came just before key U.S. decisions are expected on whether the situation in Iraq has improved enough to allow for a reduction in U.S. forces this year.

Army Gens. John P. Abizaid, who heads U.S. Central Command, and George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, plan to meet with President Bush as early as this week to make recommendations on troop levels.

Military officials must decide this month whether to cancel deployments of several Army combat brigades — a cancellation that would lead to a reduction in the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq by midyear, from about 130,000 to about 100,000. For nearly a year, Casey has said that a "substantial reduction" in troops could occur in 2006, and cited spring as the time when the critical decisions would be made.

A reduction would signal the administration's confidence in progress in the country. On Friday, however, Casey said that war planners would take the recent violence as "certainly something that we will consider in our decisions."

Without touching on the issue of troop reduction, Khalilzad described a highly combustible atmosphere in Iraq that dates at least to the polarizing Dec. 15 legislative elections, which handed Shiites a dominant role in the government.

"Right now there's a vacuum of authority, and there's a lot of distrust," said the diplomat, who is among the architects of the U.S. plan to reshape the political balance of the Middle East after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Samarra bombing and the subsequent outbreak of violent reprisals by Shiites against Sunni Muslims demonstrated that insurgents fully understand Iraq's fragility and will seek to exploit it, Khalilzad said.

"It indicates that they recognize this vulnerability of Iraq or this problem in Iraq, which they have tried to fan," he said. "There is a concerted effort to provoke civil war. The guys who want to start a civil war are there looking or considering other things they could do."

Khalilzad, who is actively and publicly involved in Iraq's government talks, repeated his weeks-long assertion that the best way to prevent civil war or large-scale sectarian violence is to form a government drawing from all of Iraq's disparate groups as a way "to build trust and narrow the fault line that exists" between Shiites and Sunnis.

"Once a national unity government is formed, the effort to provoke a civil war will face a huge obstacle," he said.

Shiite leaders loudly objected last week to Khalilzad's involvement in government talks, saying he was improperly taking the side of the Sunni minority.

"I have gotten some negative reaction," Khalilzad said, adding that he had not tried to intervene on the Sunni side. He said he had called for nonsectarian figures to run key ministries. "Sectarian Sunnis are as bad as sectarian Shias," he said.

In any case, Khalilzad said the U.S. has little choice but to maintain a strong presence in Iraq — or risk a regional conflict in which Arabs side with Sunnis and Iranians back Shiites, in what could be a more encompassing version of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, which left more than 1 million dead.

The ambassador warned of a calamitous disruption in the production and transport of energy supplies in the Persian Gulf. He described a worst-case scenario in which religious extremists could take over sections of Iraq and begin to expand outward.

"That would make Taliban Afghanistan look like child's play," said Khalilzad, an American of Afghan descent who served as U.S. envoy to Afghanistan before taking on the post in Iraq.

The U.S. vision for a broad-based government "reflects the aspirations of the [Iraqi] people," he said. "If we were at variance with the aspirations of the people, we'd be in trouble."

Khalilzad said U.S. officials had tried to enlist the support of governments of neighboring countries, even exploring "modalities of setting up a meeting" with Iran. He named Iran and Syria as two nations that had been "particularly unhelpful" in Iraq.

On Monday, Iraqi politicians continued to wrangle over the composition of a new government. Interim President Jalal Talabani announced a decision to convene parliament on Sunday, only to be quickly countered by Shiite political leaders who asked him to postpone the session.

Shiites have nominated interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari to serve a full term. Kurds and Sunnis have pushed to derail his candidacy.

Khalilzad described such day-to-day political jousting as healthy. "They are bargaining. They are shadowboxing," he said. "This is a much better way than with guns."

Still, the politics of the gun spoke loudly Monday.

Violence, much of it with sectarian overtones, left at least 18 Iraqis dead across the country as multiple car bombs exploded. One U.S. soldier was reported killed in a combat incident in western Iraq.

Maj. Gen. Mubdar Hatim Hazya Duleimi, commander of the Iraqi army in Baghdad, was killed in western Baghdad, the U.S. military announced.

He was killed by a single bullet while driving in a long convoy shortly after 5 p.m., said Mohammed Askari, a Defense Ministry advisor.

Duleimi, a Sunni, commanded a force that is seen by many as a counterweight to that of the Interior Ministry, whose Shiite-dominated police and commando units have been accused of extrajudicial killings.

The U.S. military reported Monday that a U.S. soldier had died Sunday as a result of "enemy action." The soldier was killed in rural western Iraq, although much of the insurgent violence in the country has shifted to religiously diverse urban areas, said a U.S. official who requested anonymity.

A car bomb in a crowded market in downtown Baqubah, a religiously mixed provincial capital about 35 miles northeast of the capital, killed at least six people, including two children, and injured 21. The bomb exploded as police and passersby gathered near the scene of a slaying, one of three fatal shootings reported in Baqubah.

Gunmen killed three Shiite laborers in the Sunni town of Hawija, near the northern city of Kirkuk. A roadside bomb targeting a U.S. patrol in Mosul killed an Iraqi civilian.

At least two car bombs and sporadic mortar fire shook the capital. A car bomb near a bank killed one person and injured five in the Dora district.

A car bomb on the road to the Industry Ministry injured five. Another car bomb struck a police commando patrol in the Mustansiriya district, though there were no reports of injuries.

Yarmouk Hospital officials reported receiving at least three unidentified corpses from Sunni neighborhoods.

Gunmen kidnapped a prominent university professor. Ali Hussein Khafaji, dean of the engineering college at Mustansiriya University, was taken by two carloads of men as he left home.


Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti in Washington and Suhail Ahmad in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baqubah, Kirkuk and Mosul contributed to this report.