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The senior military spokesmen have pronounced the Iraq war more or less over. The international television networks have confirmed this by opening news broadcasts with local murders, SARS or the festive convention of European Union leaders. Apparently the large bang expected to rock the Middle East is fizzling, and we have the wanted list of Iraqi leaders, looting, which no longer interest anyone after the large museum robbery, and an administrative reproach to Syria. Even the chance of finding weapons of mass destruction is not especially exciting. If the war succeeded, there won't be anyone left to use them, and the discovery will be only of historical significance.

But the war in Iraq is not an episode or an operation with a predetermined beginning and end. The Americans cannot leave Iraq now, and not only because someone must preserve law and order and reinstate an infrastructure for public services - all of this does not require a large American army presence. But a strategic vacuum has been formed in Iraq, endangering the power balance in the Middle East, and that does require a large American military presence.

Iraq with no army and central government is a rich, exposed state. It is an unguarded oil well, with neighbors who have historic ownership certificates to parts of it. Theoretically, without an Iraqi army and without an American presence, there is nothing to stop Turkey from entering Kirkuk and Musul, and what is to prevent Iran from taking over the oil fields in the east of the state? Even a small state like Kuwait could feel it can swallow the oil wells in Rumeila.

At the moment this is a theoretical danger: No state will want to mess with the American administration. The United States has turned into the new Iraq's strategic asset and is now committed to its security, not only in the cities but also on the periphery. This is the American Catch-22, because such protection means controling not only the state's entrances and exits but the new Iraq's foreign policy as well.

A new government has not yet been formed in Baghdad, but presumably an Iraqi administrative body will eventually be formed, and it will want to run an independent state and not an American province. Iraq is an Arab state which will seek international, Arab and Islamic legitimacy and herein lies the trap. As an American protectorate, it will have difficulty getting that legitimacy. On the other hand, without direct American control, Iraq may cease to exist as a state and become caught up in a bloody tangle of violent internal disputes the likes of which we have already seen in the past two weeks. Or it may be torn into autonomous provinces under ethnic, tribal or religious leaders.

Direct foreign rule brings with it the seeds of a guerrilla war against it. This is surely not surprising news to the U.S., which has experienced it in Lebanon, Somalia and Afghanistan.

Therefore very soon the administration will have to figure out how to get out of Iraq, but leave behind an American slant. If not, the U.S. will be left with only one achievement - getting rid of Saddam Hussein's regime. This, while important in itself, is insufficient to ward off the danger which Iraq may constitute in the not too distant future.

At this stage, the U.S. will have to start a comprehensive diplomatic campaign in the Middle East for an Arab support girdle to be built around Iraq. This campaign began with the threatening statements against Syria and Secretary of State Colin Powell's expected shuttle trip in the region. This is not a campaign to promote democracy or to initiate a domino effect of falling regimes, but an attempt to form a strategic, military and political alliance to which Israel will also have to pay membership fees.