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Iraqi Withdrawal: Seven Scenarios


by Austin Bay
July 18, 2007

What happens if the United States and coalition forces withdraw rapidly from Iraq? The U.S. and the Iraqi governments have their own scenarios. Iran, al-Qaida, Syria and Turkey have also analyzed potential outcomes.

Business and government make plans. Every plan anticipates a future outcome. Since the future can't be predicted, the best plans acknowledge uncertainty. Acknowledging uncertainty means accepting risk -- the risk of being wrong. The art of leadership is being "less wrong."

Here are seven "scenarios" sketching "potential outcomes" of a quick withdrawal from Iraq. These scenarios are not mutually exclusive. You will find bits and pieces in all seven:

1) Three New Countries: Kurdistan in the north becomes an independent country -- and immediately starts to wrestle with Turkey over the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is waging a secessionist struggle in southeastern Turkey. Kurdistan has oil. Southern Iraq -- a predominantly Shia area -- becomes a Shia state, also with oil. Parts of Anbar province become a Sunni state (Iraqi Sunnistan) -- which has few oil fields.

But what becomes of Baghdad? Does it divide like a desert Berlin into Shia and Sunni sectors? Baghdad remains a source of continuing conflict.

2) Regional Shia-Sunni War: Iran sees an opportunity to recover not only the Shaat al Arab region -- the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates -- but a chance to extend its border into the economically productive areas of southern Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait immediately react to Iran's drive into southern Iraq. Iraq has served as a "buffer" between Sunni Arabs and Shia Iranians, and the buffer is dissolving. Jordan and Egypt prepare for action. The War Over Mesopotamia could last for weeks, or it could grind on for years.

3) Turkey Expands: Turkey takes control of northern Iraq to the city of Kirkuk. The Ottoman Empire once controlled Mesopotamia. Turkey has a lingering claim to areas of northern Iraq. For almost two decades, Turkey has fought with the Kurdistan Workers Party -- a Kurdish secessionist group in Turkey that has bases in northern Iraq. Turkey could conclude the way to end the war with the PKK would be to absorb Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey would pay a huge political price, however. It would lose all chance of joining the European Union. As ties with the West deteriorate, Turkey might become less secular and more Islamic in both identity and in political orientation.

4) Shia Dictatorship: Shia Arabs win the chaotic battle of neighborhoods, forcing Sunni Arabs to flee. Call it "de facto" ethnic cleansing, as the Sunnis flee to Sunni states, or move to the United States. Al-Qaida, however, retains a presence. A hard-line Shia regime takes power in Baghdad with the mission of eradicating al-Qaida. The Kurds retain a high degree of autonomy with just enough connection to Baghdad to keep the Turks away.

5) "Gang Up": A calculated version of Scenario 4 -- Rwanda in the desert. Shia Arabs and Kurds launch a coordinated campaign to eliminate Iraq's Sunni Arab community. The threat of Iranian intervention prevents Sunni Arab nations from protecting Iraqi Sunnis.

6) Chaos: Iraq shatters into ethnic enclaves, with a few "new Mesopotamian city states" managing to control oil fields. Iran and Turkey exert "regional influence" over eastern and northern Iraq, respectively, but concerned about confrontation between themselves or provoking sanctions from Europe and the United States, neither sends its military forces in large numbers beyond current borders.

Terror attacks and intermittent fighting afflict neighborhoods throughout Iraq. Local warlords rule by fear and make money by either smuggling oil, drugs or arms. This tribal hell is a perfect disaster -- the kind of disaster that allows al-Qaida to build training facilities and base camps for operations throughout the Middle East and Europe.

7) The Iraqi Center Holds: The democratic government proves to be resilient. The assumption behind this scenario is that Iraq's government is just responsive enough and its security forces are just strong enough to withstand attacks by extremists and give Iran pause. After several months of brutal warfare, the Iraqi Army destroys insurgent groups.

Out of seven "rapid withdrawal" scenarios only one -- number seven -- clearly benefits the majority of Iraqis.

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