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Tuesday, March 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. envoy says "We opened Pandora's box" in Iraq

Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq — 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 and disrupt the global economy if America were to extricate itself from the country too soon.

In remarks that were among the 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 all-out civil war, but that Iraq for now has pulled back from that prospect after the wave of sectarian reprisals for the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

"If another incident [occurs], Iraq is really vulnerable to it at this time, in my judgment," Khalilzad said.

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 these communities."

Khalilzad's central message of maintaining a U.S. presence in Iraq jibed with Bush administration policy. But he offered a far gloomier justification for it 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 are "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 of U.S. forces this year.

Army Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey, the top U.S. commanders 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 scheduled deployments of several Army combat brigades — a decision 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" of U.S. troops could occur in 2006, and pointed to spring as the time when the critical decisions would be made.

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

Without touching on the issue of troop reduction, Khalilzad described a highly flammable atmosphere in Iraq dating at least to the polarizing Dec. 15 elections that handed Shiites a dominant share of authority.

"Right now there's a vacuum of authority, and there's a lot of distrust," he said.

The Samarra bombing and the subsequent violent reprisals by Shiites against Sunnis 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 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 of national unity 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.

In any case, Khalilzad said the U.S. has little choice but to maintain a strong presence in Iraq, or risk a regional conflict with Arabs siding with Sunnis and Iranians backing Shiite co-religionists in what could be a more-encompassing version of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, which left as many as 1 million people dead. 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 Kabul, the Afghan capital, before taking on the post in Baghdad.

"What we've described reflects the aspirations of the people," he said. "If we were at variance with the aspirations of the people we'd be in trouble."

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

Shiites have nominated interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to serve a full term. Kurds have pushed to derail his candidacy.

Khalilzad described such day-to-day political jousting as healthy. "They are bargaining; they are shadow-boxing," 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 car bombs exploded across the capital. One U.S. soldier was reported killed in a combat incident in western Iraq, bringing to 2,300 the number of U.S. service members who have died in Iraq since the war began, according to an Associated Press count.

Maj. Gen. Mibder Hatim al-Dulaimi, commander of the Iraqi Army in Baghdad, was killed by a single bullet to the neck while driving through western Baghdad in a lengthy vehicle convoy shortly after 5 p.m., said Mohammed Askari, an adviser to the Defense Ministry.

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

On Monday, a car bomb in a crowded market of downtown Baqouba killed at least six people, including two children, and injured 21. The bomb exploded as police and passers-by gathered near a murder scene, one of three fatal shootings reported in Baqouba.

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 one Iraqi civilian bystander.

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 religiously mixed area on Baghdad's southern edge.

Los Angele Times reporters Mark Mazzetti and Suhail Ahmad contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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