Iraq Turmoil Makes Neighbors Nervous

Americans and Iraqis have obvious interests in how events in Iraq unfold. But Iraq's neighbors also have a stake in the conflict. Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace gives Liane Hansen a few reasons why.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

For U.S. soldiers in Iraq, October has been the deadliest month in the past year. The increase in violence has also claimed the lives of a high number of civilians. And recent comments by members of the Bush administration and military indicate they expect more bloodshed ahead. The war is, of course, high on people's minds in both the United States and Iraq. But we wanted to know how closely Iraq's neighbors are watching the conflict.

So we've invited Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace and the director of the Iraq and Its Neighbors Project, to join us.

And welcome to the show.

Mr. SCOTT LASENSKY (United States Institute of Peace): Good to be with you.

HANSEN: Which of Iraq's neighbors are most closely watching the conflict?

Mr. LASENSKY: Well, you know, they're all watching Iraq very closely. For many years, for a generation, Iraq's neighbors worried about a strong Iraq. Since 2003, everything has turned around. Iraq's neighbors worry about a weak Iraq and the problems posed by a weak Iraq, which are quite different from the traditional threat.

What's on their minds? There are some things that they all share. All of Iraq's neighbors are anxious; they're anxious about security and the prospects of spillover, the spillover of violence. They're worried about a lot of social threats. There's a huge outflow of refugees, particularly the Sunni Arab states, like Syria and Jordan. Jordan has taken in some say a million Iraqi refugees. Their own population is only six million, so you can imagine the impact it's having on education, jobs, just about everything.

But it's not just refugees. A lot of Iraq's neighbor's are worried about the sectarian element. And as Iraqi politics become much more about very rigid identities, and as these identities clash, a lot of Iraq's neighbors who have their own multi-ethnic societies - Iran, Syria, even Saudi Arabia - they worry that that exported sectarianism could destabilize their own countries.

HANSEN: What could happen then, if that - the violence, and the sectarian violence in particular, continues for several more years?

Mr. LASENSKY: Well, there's the immediate fear, which is a real one, the spillover of radical elements, of people with some know-how and some grudges. Just in Jordan, less than a year ago, the triple suicide bombings in Amman at the hotels. But there's also a possibility, which if the situation further deteriorates in Iraq, you could have the neighboring states picking sides. I mean, here it's a textbook case of what happens when countries are weak or failed and civil war breaks out. Neighbors typically will back one side or another, and they will not mitigate the conflict. They'll end up exacerbating it.

So that's something we need to avoid, preventing Iraq's neighbors from intervening much more strongly than they are now, whether it's in terms of money or weapons, or even intervening literally with military forces. That's the scenario we've got to avoid.

And one way out, and here is where the U.S. dimension comes in, is creating a contact group, a regional group of Iraq and its neighbors, a group that would include the United States. And this would allow everybody to talk. This allows Iraq to sit equally at the table with its neighbors. And it allows the United States to talk to neighbors that we right now either have no relations with or have strained relations with, like Iran and Syria. It's not a guarantee, but it's a model that's been used with Afghanistan, the Balkans.

HANSEN: Are there any countries that are actually hoping the United States will fail in Iraq?

Mr. LASENSKY: No. All the neighbors, as I said, have these - they share these anxieties about the security situation, about some of the social threats. They all share in a funny way an interest today in the U.S. not withdrawing precipitously. Even the Iranians and the Syrians - who aren't real happy with our policy in the region and have, you know, problems with our policy - don't want us to withdraw precipitously.

As you move forward over the medium and long-term, the neighbors have very different visions. Four of the neighbors - Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - we have various degrees of very strong relations with. And they're interested in the stabilizing role for the United States, an active role for the United States, where our power and our influence are both strong.

Other neighbors, Syria and Iran in particular, right now have what I call zero sum attitude when they look at the United States, and obviously they translate that to Iraq. And when they look at Iraq, when they see a loss for the U.S., they see a gain for them and vice versa. So in the very short-term, in the immediate term, no one is looking for the U.S. to sort of get up and leave tomorrow. But that said, over time, we have - over time, as you project over the months and years ahead, we have varying degrees of complementarity and conflict with these different neighbors over Iraq.

HANSEN: Scott Lasensky is a senior research associate at the United States Institute of Peace and the director of the Iraq and Its Neighbors Project.

Thanks for coming in.

Mr. LASENSKY: Thanks for having me.

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