US envoy delivers blunt view of Iraq's future

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America's ambassador in Baghdad has grimly acknowledged that the US invasion of Iraq three years ago had opened a "Pandora's box" that could see the country descend into full-scale civil war.

That point had not yet been reached, Zalmay Khalilzad, the envoy, told the Los Angeles Times yesterday. But "the potential is there." All it might take, he warned, was an incident similar to last month's bombing of the Shi'ite Muslim shrine in Samarra, that unleashed a wave of sectarian killings.

"Right now there's a vacuum of authority, and there's a lot of distrust," said Mr Khalilzad. He insisted that the only way forward was to continue efforts to form a government of national unity. In the meantime there was no option but for the US to keep its troops in Iraq.

The alternative was to risk the country falling apart, with rival religious extremists taking over portions of it. This in turn could bring about massive disruptions of energy supplies, as conflict engulfed the region, with Arab states backing the Sunnis and Iran throwing its weight behind the Shi'ites.

Mr Khalilzad's blunt words contrast with the efforts of the Bush administration to soothe anxieties here, and convince an ever more sceptical domestic audience that its policies are working. Only last weekend General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff was insisting that things were going "very, very well" in Iraq.

But Americans do not seem to agree. According to a new ABC/Washington Post poll, 80 per cent now believe that civil war is likely in Iraq, and almost six out of ten however said the war was not worth fighting. The sole consolation for President Bush is that Democrats are considered equally bereft of solutions to the crisis.

Mr Khalilzad's remarks were doubly striking - both for their source, and for the choice of words. Despite the continuing lack of agreement on a broad-based government, he is widely regarded as the most effective US representative so far in Baghdad, with a much deeper understanding of the country than his predecessors.

The words "Pandora's Box" also raise uncomfortable memories for US policymakers. Before the war King Abdullah of Jordan - perhaps Washington's best friend in the region - used that phrase to counsel in vain against a US attack. So too, in September 2004, did President Jacques Chirac of France, a fierce and still not entirely forgiven critic of the invasion.