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Wed, June 26

Crisis management can help with Iraq problem

WASHINGTON ­ Somehow, four years on, wishful thinking still animates

the debate about Iraq.

The White House talks as if a surge of 20,000 troops is going to stop a civil war. Democrats argue that when America withdraws its troops, Iraqis will finally take responsibility for their own security. But we all need to face the likelihood that this story isn't going to have a happy ending.

That was the underlying message of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, released this past week. It warned the administration that if the sectarian conflict continues, as it almost certainly will, "we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate.'' The current conflict isn't just a civil

war, the analysts noted; it's worse ­ with criminal gangs, al-Qaida terrorists and Shiite internal feuding adding to the anarchic state of the country.

And for critics of the war who favor a quick American withdrawal, the analysts had this stark warning: "If Coalition forces were withdrawn rapidly during (the next 12 to 18 months) Š we judge that this almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq.'' With U.S. troops gone, the analysts forecast the collapse of the Iraqi army and a surge in

al-Qaida attacks inside and outside Iraq. "Massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable.''

In this bleak situation ­ where, as everyone keeps repeating, "there are no good options'' ­ what's the right course for U.S. policy? A useful approach may be to start planning, not for the best, but for the worst. Congress and the administration should begin thinking about potential catastrophes in Iraq ­ and about how to protect the core national interests of the United States and its allies.

So how to protect vital American interests amid this

tsunami of violence? I would

offer several basic precepts,

drawn from conversations

with experts in and out of

government: ­ Contain the

sectarian violence. The

United States can't stop

the Iraqi civil war between

Sunnis and Shiites, but it can try to keep this conflict within Iraq's borders.

• Protect the oil. The United States should be planning with its allies how to secure the region's oil supplies. We have done it before: Persian Gulf oil exports continued through eight bloody years of the Iran-Iraq War, thanks in part to U.S. naval escorts and re-flagging of tankers. America should help prepare a similar international effort now, including new pipelines that avoid the Gulf altogether.

• Talk with the neighbors. Facing the prospect of a catastrophic outcome in Iraq, the United States must have dialogue with all the regional states, including Syria and Iran. America shouldn't initially offer any deals, much less "grand bargains,'' but it should talk about mutual security interests and explore where they converge.

• Push for Arab-Israeli peace. The one thing everyone in the region seems to agree on ­ from Israel to Saudi Arabia ­ is the need for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians themselves can't offer Israel a meaningful peace agreement now ­ they're too weak, angry and disorganized. But the Arabs can, led by Saudi King Abdullah. That's the breakthrough Rice should pursue.

These crisis-management steps won't stop the catastrophe that is unfolding in Iraq, but they could mitigate its effects, which may be all we can hope for now. And the benefit of worst-case thinking is that things occasionally work out better than expected.

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