After nearly 19 months of combat, more than 1,000 American soldiers dead and $119 billion spent, the central question about Iraq isn't whether it will become a beacon of democracy in the Middle East but whether the United States can prevent it from becoming a black hole of instability.
The answer may depend on whether Americans are willing to stomach what many military analysts believe will be a guerrilla war for years to come.
That's true no matter who wins the presidency in November, and whether or not an Iraqi election takes place in January, a cross section of foreign policy experts said.
Iraq's increasingly lethal insurgency has stymied reconstruction and turned large swaths of the country into no-go zones for U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi forces. No major power has hinted that it's willing to send more troops. Germany has ruled that out, and two members of the U.S.-led coalition, Italy and Poland, have talked of withdrawing their soldiers, though neither has yet decided to do so.
With little prospect of a decisive military victory and even less chance of recruiting significant international help, that leaves the next president with the same unpleasant options:Continue fighting the insurgency and trying to rebuild the country with roughly the same number of American troops, in the hope that elections in January will turn the political tide against the insurgents and that newly trained Iraqi police and security forces can learn to defeat them.
Send thousands more American troops to Iraq in hopes of defeating the insurgency, sealing the country's borders and buying time for a new Iraqi government to get on its feet. Escalation, however, would further strain America's active, National Guard and reserve forces and risk turning even more Iraqis against the U.S.-led coalition.
Begin withdrawing American troops and handing the country over to a new government and its newly trained police and security forces. Iraq's defense minister, however, recently told Knight Ridder that American troops could be needed for as many as 15 more years, and a precipitous withdrawal could plunge the country into chaos or even civil war.
"The unpalatable options are either to make things worse slowly, by keeping our troops there, or to make things worse quickly, by withdrawing them," said James Dobbins, a nation-building expert who was President Bush's envoy to Afghanistan. The presence of U.S. troops fuels the insurgency by inflaming Iraqi nationalism, but their absence would mean chaos, he said.
"I think it may in the end be possible to have an Iraqi regime that is broadly representative and non-abusive, but it's going to be a long, hard slog."
Other experts, including former U.S. generals and scholars who've studied Iraq's history, agree that the options are bleak.
The only real choice, Dobbins and others argue, is for the United States to continue to fight the insurgents while working to train a competent Iraqi security force that can pave the way for an orderly American withdrawal. That could take from two to 10 years, they said.
Moreover, few experts believe that the end result of a protracted war will match the Bush administration's original vision for Iraq: a democratic model that could invite reform in the rest of the Middle East.
The best the United States can hope for in the end is probably an authoritarian, Western-friendly "semi-democracy," said Yoni Fighel, a retired Israeli colonel who was a military governor in the West Bank from 1987 to 1996.
A worse possibility, from the American point of view, is an Islamic fundamentalist government similar to Iran's and hostile to American interests.
And the worst-case scenario, experts say, would be an abrupt withdrawal that leaves Iraq in chaos. Such an Iraq, torn by civil strife and filled with unguarded weapons stockpiles, would quickly become an exporter of terrorism and a nightmare for its neighbors.
A senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that there will be continued instability even after January's elections. But he said he was heartened by the fact that, as the insurgency grows stronger, Iraq's political figures are jockeying in a political process that hasn't turned bloody.
Yet some experts argue that, even if Americans and Iraqis do wrestle the country into stability over the course of years, the stark failures of the occupation and the damage they've done to U.S. credibility rank as a major foreign policy debacle.
"It's not Vietnam — yet — but it is a huge blow to the U.S. ability to project power abroad," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary University in London. "The Bush doctrine died on the outskirts of Baghdad."
That doctrine threatened pre-emptive war against rogue states that harbored terrorists or weapons of mass destruction. But two alleged state sponsors of terror that Bush wanted to deter by toppling Saddam Hussein — Iran and Syria — now can be confident that America doesn't have the troop strength to invade them, Dodge said.
The United States is planning a broader offensive against insurgents in major Sunni Muslim cities such as Fallujah before the January Iraqi elections. "Get the Sunni triangle under control, and most of the rest of the country will go along," the senior administration official said.
The Pentagon has scheduled troop rotations through October 2006, and nearly all experts think the United States will be forced to maintain large numbers of troops in Iraq for at least another two years. The main disagreement is whether the American force of 138,000 should be expanded or whether it's too late for that.
The questions are whether sending more troops would do any good and whether the overstretched U.S. military could provide them. L. Paul Bremer, the former American overseer of Iraq, said he thinks the current troop levels are adequate. Others disagree.
"If you really want to control the situation in Iraq, you have to treat this as major war scenario, and we need a quarter of a million more troops," said former British infantry officer Charles Heyman, an analyst for Jane's Consultancy in London. "The problem is, you're up against the limits of Western military power. We have the technology, but we don't have the boots to put on the ground."
Heyman said he thinks the United States and Britain could muster 100,000 additional soldiers, and should do so. Iraqi forces will be unreliable for the foreseeable future, he said.
Some experts disagree that more troops is the way to go, noting that the coalition presence has become a toxic affront to most Iraqis.
'A long time'
A few international voices want to see the United States set a date for withdrawal. That's the prevailing sentiment in Jordan.
The United States lost credibility by failing to bring security or freedom to Iraq and not forming a more solid international coalition, said Taher Masri, a former prime minister and official with the Arab League. Jordanians also worry that the United States will set up permanent military bases in Iraq, he said.
Added Radwan Abdullah, a prominent political consultant in Jordan: "The United States has to concede the occupation has failed and turn power over to international powers like the U.N. If you remove the target of American occupation, the main reason for the insurgency will go."
Then Iraqis can take over responsibility for preventing terrorism in their own country, he added.
Many American officials and analysts agree that the United States now needs to pour maximum resources into training Iraqi soldiers and police.
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East until 2000, believes U.S. troops could be in Iraq for up to 10 years. He said he would call in more counter-intelligence teams and ask Arab countries to send English-speaking officers as advisers and planners.
Some analysts say the recent operation to retake the Sunni town of Samarra, in which U.S. forces attacked alongside Iraqi soldiers, should be the model for how to fight the insurgency. But dozens of civilians were reported killed during that operation.
"There is no way that you can do it surgically. You're going to kill thousands of innocent kids and women, increasing hate, bringing more people against you," said Mohamed al Sayed Said, the deputy director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Said argued that the United States and the interim Iraqi government should "buy out" the insurgents by inviting them into the political fold.
Stabilizing Iraq "is going to require patience, persistence and precision, and those are three elements that everyone is very worried that the United States doesn't have," said Nick Pratt, a retired U.S. army colonel and intelligence expert at Germany's Marshall Center. "We just have to realize that this is going to take a long time."
Contributing: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Amman, Jordan, and Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel in Washington