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Iraq expected to dog next president
Updated: 2004-10-29 09:56

The Iraq war that might have been US President Bush's defining glory may instead turn out to be his Achilles heel -- or Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry's complex inheritance.

No matter who wins the White House, the next U.S. leader will be dogged by Iraq and its repercussions for years to come.

"I think all the trends that we see in the insurgency are that it's not going to be defeated or perhaps not even contained in the coming one or two years regardless of the intensity of our military involvement," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Even as he extols a country on the rebound from Saddam Hussein's oppression, facts on the ground in Iraq have created political problems for Bush before Tuesday's election.

For example:

--U.S. and Iraqi casualties are steadily rising, including this week's massacre of 49 Iraqi National Guard trainees

--The guerrilla insurgency, experts say, now involves an estimated 20,000 fighters -- up four-fold from a year ago -- and could delay elections set for January.

-- The bill for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Bush aides promised would cost America little, is now projected at $280 billion or more through next year.

-- This week it was revealed that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives was missing from one of Iraq's most sensitive former military installations.

The next U.S. president's task involves steering Iraq toward elections, speeding training of Iraqi forces and making things stable enough for Iraqis to take over their own security as Americans depart.

Bush aides insist Iraq's election will occur as planned but Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton administration national security official, said that given the instability, "I just don't see how that's going to possibly happen."

Civil War?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, has dismissed both candidates' plans as unworkable and warned U.S. actions could force Iraq's moderate and extremist Muslims to unite in an anti-American civil war.

He wrote in the New York Times this week that this can only be avoided if Washington and Europe engage moderate Muslims in a "grand alliance" to solve three major flash points: Iraq, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction -- Bush's main reason for invading Iraq -- have not been found and an alleged connection between Baghdad and al Qaeda, which carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, proved tenuous.

Yet Bush continues to insist war was justified and Iraq is essential to remaking the Middle East in America's democratic image. Bush excoriates Kerry as lacking the resolve to complete the task in Iraq and win the "war on terror."

Kerry calls Iraq a diversion from the anti-terror war and faults Bush for failing to assemble a broad allied coalition and lacking a comprehensive plan to win the post-war peace.

Kerry and others claim the presence of 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq has given Osama bin Laden and his allies a recruiting tool to woo new militants to their cause.

Bush backer Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute said it is too soon to know if this is true. More important is that the war and Bush's vision for the Mideast are encouraging talk of democratic reform in the region, he wrote in this week's Weekly Standard.

If elected, Kerry has pledged to reach out to Europeans who opposed the war and might be persuaded to provide troops or money to relieve the U.S. burden.

Some Kerry advisers acknowledge this may be a long shot.

As for the U.S. presence in Iraq, Kerry has said he would like to withdraw forces by the end of his first four-year term. Bush has emphasized staying until the job is done.

But with the military overstretched and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld eager to withdraw, pressures may build to leave Iraq prematurely, a Republican source said.

"Certainly Kerry and probably Bush doesn't want his next four years defined by Iraq," he added.

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