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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

No safe way for U.S. to leave Iraq, experts warn

Story Highlights

• Experts paint bleak picture of Iraq if U.S. troops fully withdraw
• Among potential scenarios: al Qaeda terror hub and larger regional conflict
• CNN analyst: "Saudi Arabia will not allow increasing Iranian dominance"
• U.S. general says early pullout would cause "huge vacuum"
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(CNN) -- Pulling U.S. forces from Iraq could trigger catastrophe, CNN analysts and other observers warn, affecting not just Iraq but its neighbors in the Middle East, with far-reaching global implications.

Sectarian violence could erupt on a scale never seen before in Iraq if coalition troops leave before Iraq's security forces are ready. Supporters of al Qaeda could develop an international hub of terror from which to threaten the West. And the likely civil war could draw countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran into a broader conflict.

President Bush vetoed a war spending bill Tuesday precisely because the Democrat-led Congress required the first U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn by October 1 with a goal of a complete pullout six months later.

Bush said such a deadline would be irresponsible and both sides are now working on new proposals -- which may have no pullout dates.

A rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops would hurt America's image and hand al Qaeda and other terror groups a propaganda victory that the United States is only a "paper tiger," CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen said. (Send us your reaction)

"It would also play into their strategy, which is to create a mini-state somewhere in the Middle East where they can reorganize along the lines of what they did in Afghanistan in the late '90s," Bergen told

It was in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda allied with the Taliban, and were allowed to run terror bases and plan the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.

Bergen says it is imperative that the United States not let that happen in Iraq.

"What we must prevent is central/western Iraq [from] becoming a Sunni militant state that threatens our interests directly as an international terror hub," he said.

Don Shepperd, a retired Air Force major-general and military analyst for CNN, agreed that Sunni Muslim fighters who support al Qaeda would seek an enclave inside a lawless Iraq likely riven along sectarian lines into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

There would be "increasing attempts by terrorists to establish a training sanctuary in Iraq," Shepperd said.

That's one of the reasons why a fast withdrawal will not happen, whatever the politicians say, the analysts predict. (Watch why a radical Shiite cleric wants U.S. troops out Video)

"Everyone wants the troops home -- the Iraqis, the U.S., the world -- but no one wants a precipitous withdrawal that produces a civil war, a bloodbath, nor a wider war in an unstable Mideast," Shepperd said, adding that the image of the United States was important too.

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