Pulling back American troops into their bases in Iraq will reduce U.S. casualties, but it could also spark a firestorm of unrestrained sectarian violence that will sorely test the loyalties of the Iraqi army.
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which reports on Wednesday, has explored ways of moving forward U.S. policy in Iraq, where Defense Secretary designate Robert Gates said on Tuesday America was not winning the war and needed a new approach.
Military analysts have focused on leaked recommendations that U.S. troops shift from combat to concentrate on supporting and training Iraqi forces, who should do more of the fighting.
Some analysts interviewed ahead of the report’s publication cautioned that such a proposal was fraught with peril when viewed against the backdrop of sectarian and insurgent violence that has defied previous U.S. and Iraqi efforts to rein it in.
"The short term will see a drop in (U.S.) casualties. But the military consequence of pulling back will be to cede the initiative to the enemy and to reduce the patrol presence that keeps enemy activity down," said Stephen Biddle of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute.
"If we were to withdraw to bases, the intensity of the civil war is going to increase dramatically," he warned.
A U.S. troop pullback could have merit if it is done as a threat to increase Washington’s leverage on the Shi’ite-led government, still dependent on U.S. firepower, to force a political compromise with minority Sunnis, he said.
While the United Nations estimates that some 120 people die violently every day in Iraq, the fear is the death toll would be far higher if U.S. troops hunkered down in their bases and removed one of the last checks on roving sectarian death squads.
But President George W. Bush is under pressure to change course in an unpopular war that has killed more than 2,900 American soldiers so far, despite his insistence that U.S. forces will stay until their mission is complete.
Duncan Anderson, head of the war studies department at Britain’s Sandhurst military academy, said if Bush accepted a proposal to pull the troops back into their bases, then this should be done gradually while accelerating training of the fledgling Iraqi army.
"We should have coalition forces for some months to come while we ramp up training of Iraqi forces. There has to be a phased withdrawal," he said.
Anderson, who was in Iraq this summer to train Iraqi army officers, said the training and support that U.S.-led forces had provided the Iraqis so far was "not what it should be", although those officers he saw were "pretty good".
He said the number of trainers embedded in Iraqi units should also be "increased considerably". "This gives them some steel and sends a signal they have not been abandoned."
But others say that placing too much emphasis on training the mainly Shi’ite national army, which Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki said last week would be ready to take control of national security next June, ignores the fact that the country is in the midst of a deepening conflict that pits Shi’ites against Sunnis.
"We can train Iraqis to be better soldiers but it is not proven we can train them to be better Iraqis. They will still be loyal to communities and tribes rather than central government," said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.
"There is too much unjustified optimism that Iraqi forces are tractable and trainable. To date there is little evidence."
While Maliki has pushed Washington to accelerate training of his forces and hand over security control, their ability to fill the security vacuum is questionable, despite efforts by U.S. generals to publicly boost their image.
"Even if you’ve got an effective military you still have the problem that that amounts to arming one of the two sides in the civil war. And as the death toll rises the military will takes sides among the militias … and splinter," warned Biddle.
Thompson said much of America’s new military strategy in Iraq would depend on how the Bush administration now defined its political goals in Iraq.
"If our goal is to prevent the spread of civil war, then we are not going to be pulling troops out, because the moment we do, the war will grow so ferocious we will stop deploying.
"If our goal is to get out, then we are going to have to accept an even higher level of civil strife. If Americans leave Iraq, it will not be peaceful by anybody’s definition."