BAGHDAD, Iraq – As the United States military draws up long-term plans to leave Iraq, top officers are looking to the U.S. intervention in Bosnia's (search) civil war as a model for an American exit strategy here.
The United States will keep combat teams in Iraq for the next few years, pulling them gradually out of cities into the countryside, and then perhaps into Kuwait and other countries. Eventually it will leave entirely, said Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack, commander of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division.
A slower version of this pullout plan is under way in Bosnia, with peacekeeping forces dwindling from 60,000 in 1995 to about 12,000 now, including about 1,200 U.S. troops.
"You have the 82nd Airborne Division that can jump in here to reinforce regional forces or you have Marine offshore forces that can come in here and reinforce for a while," Swannack said in an interview with The Associated Press. "That's what we have in Bosnia."
The military's two-year disengagement plan could be upended by any number of events in Iraq. Civil war between its ethnic and religious groups might prolong the occupation, or it could be shortened by the election of an Iraqi government that orders the Americans out, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search) in Washington.
"The timing, if Iraq transitions peacefully to its own sovereignty, is possible," Cordesman said. "But that's not a promise that any of this is going to happen."
Two rebel attacks in Fallujah (search) this week cast doubts on the pullout plan, which depends on Iraqi security forces being able to defeat such assaults. On Saturday, dozens of guerrillas routed pro-U.S. Iraqi forces inside their own compounds, freeing prisoners and sparking a gunbattle that killed 23 people.
Guerrillas had attacked the same security compound on Thursday just as the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid (search), was visiting the site. Abizaid, who escaped unharmed but observed the fighting, said Iraqi forces were "not ready" to take on the rebels.
The Bosnia model itself has not moved according to plan. In the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, the Clinton administration envisioned U.S. soldiers staying there for about a year. They've been there for nearly nine since progress toward a political solution to ethnic rivalries has been slow.
"If Bosnia is the model, God help us," said Richard K. Betts, director of Columbia University's Institute of War and Peace Studies (search) in New York.
Swannack said Bosnia's lessons for Iraq went only as far as the reduction of U.S. forces, not the country's political progress.
For now, the military is focused on keeping Iraq from veering into a different Yugoslav scenario: the vicious civil wars that wracked the Balkans in the 1990s, military officials said.
"The advantage we have here over Bosnia is that there hasn't yet been a civil war and we are on the ground in a position to stop it before it happens," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst with the Brookings Institution (search) in Washington.
A three-phase plan will keep American forces able to respond and douse a civil war, as Iraq's new police and military forces gather strength to take control of the country, Swannack said.
As the ongoing troop rotation brings the level of U.S. troops from 130,000 to about 110,000, the current close-knit occupation of Iraq will devolve into what Swannack termed "local standoff," with American troops moving to the outskirts of Baghdad and other cities, and turning peacekeeping duties to Iraqi police and civil defense soldiers.
Around the end of the year, the dwindling number of American troops in Iraq will pull further back, into "regional standoff" position, with just a few bases dotted around Iraq. Those bases will house U.S. combat teams that can back up Iraqi troops, Swannack said.
"Local standoff will be complete in about six months, and regional standoff in nine months to a year from now," said Swannack, whose forces control a huge swath of Iraq west of Baghdad. "I might only have one third of the forces I have in the west right now, but they might be more of a quick reaction force that can respond to crises as opposed to day-to-day doing a job like now."
In two years or slightly longer, the U.S. military presence will mostly disappear, with much of the combat power focused on Iraq actually based outside the country — as is the case with forces prepared to respond to a crisis in Bosnia, Swannack said.
However, sending U.S. troops back into Iraq may be politically impossible in a few years, said Betts, of the Institute of War and Peace Studies.
"After American casualties have topped a thousand dead and thousands more maimed, as they may before we withdraw ... the real chances that an American president will send forces back into the maelstrom seem close to zero," Betts said.