Iraq chaos 'will not be solved by military force'

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A diplomatic effort involving all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council is the only way to stop Iraq falling apart in a religious, Sunni-Shia conflict that could spark a regional conflagration, an influential non-governmental organisation warned yesterday.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group's (ICG) findings will make even more grim reading for the White House than this month's report from the American Iraq Study Group, as President George Bush struggles to come up with a strategy change.

Iraq, says the ICG's report, faces "complete disintegration into failed-state chaos" ­ and the solution does not lie in the transfer of responsibility to the fragile government of Nouri al-Maliki, as envisaged by the Bush administration and even by the study group led by the former secretary of state James Baker and the former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton.

To do that, arguesAfter Baker-Hamilton: What to Do in Iraq, would mean " expanding forces that are complicit in the current dirty war and for speeding up the transfer of responsibility to a government that has done nothing to stop [that war]."

The ICG, whose mission is to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts, takes issue with advocates of a "surge" in US troop strength in Iraq and declares that there can be no military solution, only a political one. Instead the ICG wants the "big five" permanent members of theSecurity Council and Iraq's six neighbours to form an "international support group" ­ but not with the exclusive aim of propping up the Maliki government. "It must support Iraq ­ which means pressing the government, along with all other Iraqi constituents, to make the necessary compromises."

The latest Pentagon report on Iraq underscores the urgency ­ sectarian and insurgent attacks rose to an average 959 per week in the three months to November.

Presenting the figures, Marine General John Sattler said the violence had increased at "an unbelievably rapid pace".

For President Bush the dilemma is acute. Originally promised by Christmas, the announcement of the "new approach" has been put back to next year, as clear differences persist within the administration and other prominent voices in Washington. The crux of the issue is whether to send additional troops ­ 20,000 to 30,000 is the most widely mentioned estimate ­ to bolster the 145,000-strong US force in Iraq, with the specific mission to restore order in Baghdad and in Anbar province, the stronghold of the Sunni-led insurgency.

Mr Bush appears to favour this course, as do Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, and Senator John McCain, the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. But the uniformed military including General George Casey, the commander in Iraq, are sceptical as to whether such a move would make much difference. The main impact, they say, would be to give insurgents more US targets to shoot at. Colin Powell, Mr Bush's first secretary of state, also opposes an increase. The views of his successor, Condoleezza Rice, are not clear.

The decision rests with President Bush. But the crucial voice belongs to Robert Gates, the new Defence Secretary, who is to visit Iraq this week. Mr Gates said during his swearing in ceremony on Monday that failure in Iraq would be "a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility and endanger Americans for decades to come".

* The holy city of Najaf, seat of Iraq's most powerful Shia clerics, including the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, will be handed over to Iraqi control today. It is the third of Iraq's 18 provinces to be transferred from the US-led forces to Iraqi security forces.