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Op-Ed

Event Summary: Instability in Iraq; Initiatives in the Middle East Heartland

Recent attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq by Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen have hampered reconstruction efforts in the country and raised doubts about plans to hand over authority to an Iraqi provisional government this summer. Although the Bush administration remains committed to the June 30 transfer deadline, many are calling on the president to delay the deadline in order to assure a smooth and effective transfer of power.

A Brookings panel of experts convened today to discuss recent developments in Iraq and preview upcoming visits by two of America’s closest Middle East allies—President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. President Bush plans to discuss with them two new initiatives that could affect the entire region: Sharon’s plan to disengage unilaterally from the Gaza trip and the administration’s own political reform strategy for the Greater Middle East.

“Last week’s events have to be a wake up call to the Bush administration,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth M. Pollack, referring to attacks by Iraqi insurgents against coalition forces and their capture of several cities. Seventy Americans have died in the past month and several hostages have been taken.

“We have real problems, and if the administration is not willing to turn things around, those problems are going to get much worse in the future,” he said.

Pollack expressed concern about the failure of coalition forces to provide adequate security to the region. This failure, Pollack said, has increased resentment of the occupation forces by Iraqis and driven some into the arms of radicals such as Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has long opposed the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Iraqi security forces, according to Pollack, are one way to address the situation, but they are “absolutely hollow” and not properly equipped or trained to effectively deal with security issues.

Brookings Senior Fellow Michael E. O’Hanlon shared Pollack’s concern, calling current events in Iraq “sobering” and part of a “dark period.” O’Hanlon believes that more troops are needed in Iraq, but said the United States needs to rethink how it utilizes its troops.

“I’m still nervous we haven’t developed a serious strategy to restore order in the Sunni triangle, and we’ve essentially taken ourselves out of many of these cities,” O’Hanlon said. “We put our best coalition forces in the easiest areas to control.”

The increasing violence in Iraq threatens to harm administration efforts to gain additional international support for its mission and poses several political problems during this election season.

Brookings Senior Fellow Ivo H. Daalder said that the United States would have little success garnering international support. “There is no one outside of the U.S. who doesn’t think that this is a total, utter, and unmitigated disaster,” Daalder said. “Never has it been clearer that America needs international support and engagement in Iraq, and never has it been less likely that it will get that.”

Daalder believes that more troops, legitimacy, and expertise are needed, but said that international organizations such as NATO and the United Nations are ill-equipped to take on the various challenges in Iraq.

“This is our baby,” Daalder said. “We have to try to make it work, because there is no one else who will do it for us.”

Daalder called the June 30 deadline “a problem” and said that “if there is a chance to put this humpty dumpy back together—or to make a new one—the worse way to do it is to stick to the June 30 deadline?There is no government and nothing that is capable of keeping [Iraq] together other than us. So why not just stay there?”

Pollack disagreed, saying that “you need a deadline to force people to actually do things,” but he added that the deadline should be reexamined as the date approaches, if Iraq remains violent.

The situation in Iraq will figure prominently in upcoming meetings with President Mubarak and Prime Minister Sharon. Brookings Senior Fellow Martin S. Indyk found it ironic that “just as things look so hopeless in Iraq, who would have thought that we’d end up with some sense of hope in Gaza of all places?”

Indyk was referring to a recent proposal by Sharon to withdraw Israeli forces and Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and turn over control of the area to Palestinians. His meeting with Bush is seen as a way to gain U.S. support for this proposal, while also securing certain promises from his valuable ally.

According to Indyk, Sharon will be seeking the Bush administration’s assurances that Israelis will not be expected to withdraw to its 1967 borders, that Palestinians refugees will not be granted the right of return to Israel proper, and that Israel will be allowed to reenter Gaza in order to retaliate against terrorist attacks, if necessary. This interplay, Indyk said, presents several dilemmas for the Bush administration.

“On the one hand, he wants to endorse Sharon’s initiative, since it’s a political season,” Indyk said. “On the other hand, Bush has a vision of a two-state solution?He does not want Sharon’s initiative to lead to a failed terror state as a result of the vacuum Sharon will leave behind.”

Indyk believes that Sharon’s initiative will ultimately be successful, even if Bush does not completely support it, because Sharon will be able to spin Bush’s support in such a way that the Israeli Likud party will vote in favor of the resolution.

Egypt is also paying close attention to events in the Middle East, according to Brookings Research Fellow Tamara Cofman Wittes, and especially to today’s meeting between President Bush and Mubarak.

“The U.S. is facing a choice between whether to embrace their activist and ambitious vision of democracy for the region or to embrace a vision that is being put forward by more conservative leaders of gradual reform that may or may not lead to real democracy,” Wittes said. “This conflict is inevitable, but not insurmountable, however, and it provides us with an opportunity to see how that tension can be mediated.”

Indyk believes that Sharon’s proposal and the upcoming meetings with President Bush could be promising. “Bush will get a little help from Mubarak,” Indyk said, “a chance to embrace an Israeli prime minister during an election year, a sense that something positive is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian arena at a time when nothing is going well in the Iraq arena, and Mubarak will get back into our good graces, and Sharon will get a kiss on the cheek?In the Middle East—given the alternatives—that won’t be such a bad week.”

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