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Pullout proposal lacking a Plan B

Times Staff Writer

Lawmakers who have led the drive to bring troops home from Iraq have not devised a strategy to deal with the widespread killings that could follow a pullout, recent interviews with more than two dozen Democrats and Republicans show.

Many of them acknowledge that Iraq may plunge into vicious sectarian fighting much like the ethnic cleansing that consumed Bosnia a decade ago. However, they said they would reject the use of U.S. troops to stop the killing.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s horrendous,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who has helped spearhead efforts against the war. “The only hope for the Iraqis is their own damned government, and there’s slim hope for that.”

Some proponents of a withdrawal declined to discuss what the United States should do if the violence increases.

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“That’s a hypothetical. I’m not going to get into it,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.

Many Democrats, however, believe that any increase in violence would be short-term, and argue that a troop drawdown would eventually lead to a more stable Iraq and Middle East.

Opponents of a withdrawal have raised the specter of spiraling violence between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis, a wider Middle Eastern war and a resurgent Al Qaeda to blunt the accelerating Democratic efforts to scale back military involvement in Iraq.

At the White House last week, President Bush warned of “mass killings on a horrific scale.”

The withdrawal measures offered by Democrats, including one the Senate is scheduled to vote on today, acknowledge the U.S. will continue to play a military role in Iraq for years. The bills would allow an unspecified number of troops to remain to perform limited missions, such as training Iraqis and going after terrorist networks.

Democratic lawmakers, including Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), say such an approach, though not perfect, is the best of the bad options necessitated by the Bush administration’s mismanagement of the war.

They argue that the presence of about 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is strengthening Al Qaeda, while it gives Iraqi leaders a crutch that allows them to avoid taking action to reduce tensions between the country’s sectarian communities.

“It’s essential that we tell Iraq and the world that we are getting ready to leave ... both because the way to put pressure on Iraqi leaders is to let them know that the open-ended commitment is over and because the open-ended commitment plays into the hands of Al Qaeda,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Levin, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a leading co-sponsor of the Senate Democratic withdrawal proposal.

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Many congressional Democrats also say that a U.S. withdrawal would encourage Iraq’s neighbors, such as Iran and Syria, to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict.

“I believe, if we leave, the region will pull together,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), a founding member of the influential House Out of Iraq caucus. “It’s important to them that Iraq stabilize.”

A few Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, have proposals they hope would increase the likelihood of a stable outcome after a U.S. pullback.

Biden, who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, advocates decentralizing the country into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions, which he contends would head off full-blown civil war.

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But aside from broad calls for a diplomatic effort to work with Iraq’s neighbors and more involvement by international organizations, such as the United Nations, most Democrats have no “Plan B,” should a withdrawal yield chaos.

Senate Democrats’ “New Direction” agenda, in which the party touts its goals, does not address the issue of a post-withdrawal Iraq, noting only that “Senate Democrats remain committed ... to bring the war to a successful and responsible end.”

And Levin’s three-page withdrawal proposal only instructs the president to urge the appointment by the United Nations of an Iraq mediator.

House Democrats -- who named the withdrawal measure they passed last week the “Responsible Redeployment From Iraq Act” -- also have not laid out a program to deal with the aftermath.

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Even the more than 70-member House Out of Iraq caucus, which has been pushing for a withdrawal for more than two years, has none.

“The Out of Iraq caucus really has not looked beyond ending military involvement,” acknowledged Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a caucus leader and Pelosi ally. “Now that the environment is changing pretty significantly ... everybody may be starting to look at what happens after the United States leaves.”

Some Democratic lawmakers argue that it is the Bush administration’s responsibility to develop a detailed exit strategy.

The House withdrawal measure, which passed 223 to 201 largely along party lines, calls on the president to develop a new “comprehensive United States strategy for Iraq” that sets out more limited military missions and new “diplomatic initiatives to engage United States allies and others in the region to bring stability to Iraq.”

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The House asked for the strategy before Jan. 1, 2008.

“The reality is that they are in the best position to do the detailed planning,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a prominent voice on national security issues who is co-sponsoring the Senate withdrawal proposal with Levin.

The president has rejected any discussion of a redeployment until after Sept. 15, when the top U.S. commander in Iraq is due to report on the success of the 30,000-troop buildup.

Other Democratic lawmakers who have criticized the president’s war planning simply brush aside the need to confront the possibility of a bloody aftermath.

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“I am convinced based on everything I have read it won’t be a hell of a lot worse than it is now,” said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a Vietnam veteran who has helped lead the Democratic effort to force a withdrawal.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a widely respected military authority who sponsored last week’s House withdrawal measure, said he was reluctant to engage in “what ifs.”

“You don’t want to plan for failure,” Skelton said.

Five years ago, Skelton presciently warned Bush in a series of letters before the invasion about the need for detailed plans to deal with the chaos Skelton predicted would follow Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

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Today, there is no shortage of similar warnings.

In January, intelligence agencies warned in a National Intelligence Estimate that a rapid U.S. withdrawal over the following 12 to 18 months could draw neighboring nations into Iraq. “Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable,” the report concluded.

Last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that a troop withdrawal could lead to “the collapse of the state.”

Even the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, which many lawmakers see as blueprint for reducing U.S. military involvement, cautioned a premature withdrawal would lead to “greater human suffering, regional destabilization and a threat to the global economy.”

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Some withdrawal advocates on Capitol Hill acknowledge such a possibility.

“It’s very difficult to predict what will happen,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), another leading advocate of a withdrawal.

“And it may be naive to believe that our departure will lead to instant peace. More likely, the Iraqis will still have to resolve internal differences that date back centuries,” Durbin said.

But few, if any, champions of pulling out U.S. forces are willing to intervene again, should ethnic and sectarian cleansing intensify.

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Instead, wearied by U.S. casualties and pessimistic about the chances that American troops could stop a full-blown civil war, many lawmakers are resigned to letting Iraq’s communities fight it out.

“It will grow,” predicted Oregon Sen. Gordon H. Smith, one of three Senate Republicans backing the Democratic withdrawal plan. “But it will burn itself out. That’s how civil wars are fought. That’s just the brutal truth.”

Obey, the House Appropriations chairman, reflected the despondency that many on Capitol Hill now felt about the war.

“There will be no good outcome,” he said. “Sometimes when you make a horrendous mistake, everybody pays the consequences. And that’s what we all are doing now.”

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noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.


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