WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States faces the risk of a costly, open-ended quagmire in Iraq because of a lack of political progress in the divided country, a report by US experts said.
"Political progress is so slow, halting and superficial, and social and political fragmentation so pronounced, that the US is no closer to being able to leave Iraq than it was a year ago," said the US Institute of Peace (USIP) study released Sunday.
The US commitment to Iraq "carries a massive cost, both human and financial," in addition to the global interests the US is sacrificing, it added.
The report comes ahead of pivotal testimony this week before Congress by General David Petraeus, the commander of US troops in Iraq, and the US ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.
"Even if progress in Iraq continues," USIP said, "the results may not be worth the cost."
The report, which also offered options for future US policy, was produced by the same experts who advised the earlier Iraq Study Group, which delivered its findings to US President George W. Bush and Congress in December 2006.
That bipartisan group, led by former secretary of state James Baker and former lawmaker Lee Hamilton, called for beginning a phased withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq and a diplomatic opening to Syria and Iran.
While acknowledging that security has improved partly due to the "surge" of some 30,000 additional US forces in Iraq, the USIP report says the situation remains tenuous and that Washington enjoys little leverage with the Baghdad government.
"The reduced level of violence, still far short of the needs of both Iraqis and Americans, leaves the situation fragile and dependent on the presence of US forces," it said.
"Without political progress, the US risks getting bogged down in Iraq for a long time to come, with serious consequences for its interests in other parts of the world."
The study said it could take five to ten years of a "full, unconditional US commitment to Iraq" before serious political progress took root.
Iraq was plagued by "a weak and divided central government with limited governing capacity" and it was unlikely the situation would improve anytime soon.
"In part because the US has not imposed any conditions for its support of the Iraqi government, it has little leverage over its decisions," the study said.
The long-term effect on stability from Iraq's recent crackdown on Shiite militias in southern Basra "remains to be seen," USIP said. "If successful, the effect should be largely positive ... If it fails, the government may be perceived as weak."
The expert panel says if the United States decides to maintain its "full and unconditional" commitment to Iraq, it could either focus more effort on building up local authorities or seek out a "grand bargain" at the national level to forge a consensus among rival factions on key disputes.
"The minimum acceptable outcome to justify continued US support, is a highly decentralized Iraq with a central government performing only two critical functions: revenue distribution and national-level security," USIP said.
If Washington chose to reduce the US presence in Iraq, the study sets out two options. The first would be to tie the US role to a decentralization of power to the provinces, with Baghdad overseeing the distribution of oil revenue and maintaining an effective, non-sectarian army.
The second option, according to the study, would involve an unconditional "near-total" withdrawal of US troops in Iraq and a renewed focus on diplomacy to rebuild regional alliances.
Under this scenario, troops would be redeployed in the Gulf, allowing for intervention in Iraq if necessary.
The report said the expert panel was divided over the best way to proceed in Iraq.
As to the testimony of Petraeus and Crocker, USIP recommended lawmakers pose a series of questions, including how the US can increase its flagging leverage over the Iraqi government, and would a scheduled US troop withdrawal "focus Iraqi minds?"
Following the US government's reasoning that lack of progress in Iraq warrants a US troop increase, while progress means US forces must stay, the expert panel suggests asking:
"Under what conditions will we be able to withdraw the majority of our combat forces from Iraq?
"With the increasing requirement for troops in Afghanistan, what is the minimum number of troops needed for your mission in Iraq?"
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