Sunday, March 05, 2006

A century's defining moment

Salena Zito, Pittsburg Online:
The world holds a stake in democracy's triumph or failure in Iraq, says the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

"Success in Iraq will be a major setback for terrorists and a major asset for the security of this region," Zalmay Khalilzad told me in a telephone interview from Baghdad last week. "The struggle for Iraq is the struggle for the future of the world." READ MORE

Nathaniel Fick, who wrote about being a post-9/11 Marine officer in the book "One Bullet Away," respects Khalilzad. "If there is any concern, it is that he arrived too late."

Fick hopes he's wrong about that.

Khalilzad and the Iraqi officials he advises on creating a new government faced what could be Iraq's Fort Sumter on Feb. 22 when terrorists bombed a Shiite mosque and shrine in Samarra. "They came to the brink (of civil war) ... but they have decided that that is not what they want and they have pulled back from it."

An Afghani native and the highest-ranking Muslim in the Bush administration, Khalilzad sees this not as a Muslim-vs.-West conflict, but as a struggle "within the Muslim world" -- from Pakistan to Morocco -- between extremist and moderate interpretations of Islam.

The extremists want "a constant struggle between the world of Islam and the rest of the world" and "are seeking to provoke it."

According to Fick, who decided not to re-enlist in 2004 but stays in touch with Marine buddies still in Iraq, U.S. troops were optimistic about the ability of Iraqi forces after the Samarra bombing.

"They are the ones who held the country together, not American forces," he says; "Iraqi politicians made the compromises on their own" with U.S. advice, not under U.S. "compulsion."

Might the Samarra bombing unwittingly strengthen Iraq's center, by drawing together the Shia and Sunni fringes? Ambassador Khalilzad thinks so: "My hope is that a major crisis like this can be ... a defining moment to draw them into cooperation across sectarian and ethnic lines."

History is full of defining moments. In the 19th century it was managing the strategic balance between European powers; in the 20th century it was containing the Soviet Union.

Iraq "is the challenge of our time," Khalilzad says. "We did not come looking for it -- it came looking for us."

Ignoring it will only make it worse for the world, he says.

Ambassador Khalilzad says it must be very clear that the United States is not looking for a war against Islam. "We are at war with terrorists. And Muslims are at war internally with extremists and terrorists.

"We need to do a better job of building bridges with moderate forces here," as we did in Europe after World War II.

"We need to focus the world's (attention) to transform this region the way Europe transformed after being dysfunctional for thousands of years."

And withdrawing troops prematurely? A mistake, he says: "We have a lot at stake in this region: oil, stability, terror"; if Iraq falls into extremist hands, "it would pose a much bigger threat than the Taliban in Afghanistan."

As a second week passes since the Samarra bombing, with well over 180 mosques damaged or destroyed, with scores dead in new attacks and daytime curfews reinstated, Kahlilzad's "challenge of our time" continues.

Salena Zito is a Trib editorial page columnist. Call her at 412-320-7879. E-mail her at