What would happen to Iraq if Washington follows the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group? The group's underlying assumption is that Iraqi forces will be ready to take over from the U.S. military by early 2008. To test that thesis, it is instructive to look at parts of southern Iraq from which coalition forces have already been withdrawn. There Shi'ite militias backed by Iran have taken control, intimidating government forces into submission and terrorizing Sunnis. On several occasions Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, has had to plead with radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to restrain his fighters from killing soldiers and police--with limited results.
If the Iraqi government can't stop sectarian killing today when it is able to call on the world's most powerful military, it can hardly be expected to do so once the Americans have left. The more likely outcome is an escalation of the civil war, with elements of the security forces taking sides. The Shi'ite militias will enjoy numerical superiority and the continued surreptitious backing of Shi'ite Iran. But what the Sunni insurgents lack in numbers, they make up for in greater killing experience. Their suicide bombers, fighters and improvised explosive devices are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the 2,800-plus U.S. deaths in Iraq. And the Sunnis have friends. The U.S. has long accused Syria of harboring both Iraqi Baathists and jihadis of various nationalities who infiltrate Iraq to make mischief. And Iraqi officials routinely claim that the insurgency receives money and men from extremist organizations in neighboring Sunni-majority countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan.
Those countries can't afford to be seen as openly supporting groups responsible for killing Americans. But if the Americans depart, the dynamic changes. Nawaf Obaid, a security adviser to the government of Saudi Arabia, warned last week that if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, Riyadh will intervene to protect the Sunnis from the Shi'ites. In an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, he said the Saudis would probably supply the Sunni insurgency with money, arms and logistical support. Quiet intervention is always an option: Iraq's porous borders are ideal for smuggling cash, weapons and jihadis.
As talk of withdrawal has gathered momentum in recent weeks, some Sunni groups dedicated to fighting U.S. troops have already begun to recalibrate their gunsights. One of the largest Sunni insurgent groups, Islamic Army, dramatically changed course last week and called on its followers to wage a "battle of destiny" against Shi'ites for control of Baghdad. Only a year ago, the studiously nationalistic and nonsectarian group vehemently opposed al-Qaeda leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's call for a holy war against Iraqi Shi'ites.
With the U.S. gone, the intensified fighting would probably be internecine as well as sectarian. Shi'ite militias in the south have shown a propensity to fight one another, as have Sunni groups in the volatile Anbar province. Iraq could look very much like Afghanistan after the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops--sectarian or ethnic warlords battling for territory, with the backing of sponsors from neighboring countries. An Afghanistan-style civil war would provide international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Hizballah with fertile ground in which to recruit, train and battle-test a new generation of global jihadis.