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Commentary: Biggest geopolitical blunder?

By ARNAUD DE BORCHGRAVE, UPI Editor at Large

MONTE CARLO, Monaco, March 1 (UPI) -- The worst geopolitical blunder in 229 years of American history? That was how participants at a recent off-the-record conference held in Monaco viewed the U.S. decision for the regime change invasion of Iraq.

Hyperbole from leftist malcontents? No, quite simply the verdict spoken in sadness rather than anger by 63 personalities from Europe, east and west, the Middle East, North Africa and the U.S.

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They were former prime ministers, foreign ministers, heads of intelligence services, newspaper editors, TV news executives, current and former heads of major international organizations.

There was little noticeable anti-Americanism. No snide remarks about President Bush's lack of foreign policy experience. In fact, participants stressed how important U.S. global power was to global stability. But they lamented how it had been wasted on Iraq, instead of being carefully nurtured for what could be far more threatening crises in the same neighborhood before 2010.

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Now, America's military machine, if not broken, was in no shape to embark on another campaign in the same neighborhood. It was hard to see how National Guard units could be rotated in and out of Iraq much longer. Seventy-two percent of U.S. troops, according to a Zogby poll, believe they should leave within a year, and another survey showed 30 percent of troops back from Iraq in need of psychiatric assistance. This at a time when President Bush's poll numbers are down below 34 percent as of Feb. 28.

There was much apprehension in Monaco about another Vietnam-like debacle fomented by Iran's underground apparatus in Iraq. And this was before the bombing of the Askariya Golden mosque, the Shiite shrine in Samarra, that unleashed a fury of attacks against Sunni mosques and sectarian violence that killed hundreds countrywide.

Iran was repeatedly mentioned. A retired French ambassador, a socialist, said it was critically important, not only for Israel, but for Europe too, that Iran be kept out of the nuclear club. "Allowing religious fanatics to acquire nuclear weapons," he said off-line, "would be the latter-day equivalent of allowing Nazi troops to reoccupy the Rhineland in 1936 when the entire German army numbered 22,000. They had orders to retreat if the French tried to stop them. All it would have taken was a handful of French soldiers. But the weakness of French and British leaders allowed Hitler to build the world's most formidable war machine in six years (1933-39) and then trigger World War II."

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Doesn't Iran command global retaliatory capabilities, ranging from underground terrorist cells throughout the Middle East and Europe, to Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations that can set the region ablaze and spike oil up to $200 a barrel? "That," replied the ambassador, "is the kind of cowardly response that will paralyze public opinion with fear and nudge our leaders into the appeasement mode. The reaction of European leaders in the cartoon war that was inspired by extremists is not comforting."

A ranking Egyptian official reminded the Monaco assemblage that Egypt's President Mubarak, prior to the Iraq war, had warned the Bush administration that a successful overthrow of Saddam Hussein would almost certainly lead to the election of a Shiite religious leader. The Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, may not be a religious leader, "but he is certainly malleable under behind-the-scenes Shiite direction."

Al-Jaafari defers to Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani. He is in sync with firebrand Muqtada Sadr, whose 10,000-strong militia is an adjunct of Iran's Revolutionary Guards under the orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Jordanian intelligence service, one of the best in the Middle East, estimates that about 1 million Iranians -- many of them Iraqis with Iranian IDs after choosing exile during the Saddam Hussein regime -- had returned to Iraq since mid-2003.

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The acting Prime Minister al-Jaafari says he does not expect to cobble a coalition government for several more months. The daily toll of scores of killed in sectarian bombings hardens positions on all sides.

The Iraqi government is widely distrusted as a guarantor of security with an ever-larger number of people taking security into their own hands. The historic parallel that springs to mind is the late Yugoslavia under dictator Tito. Like Iraq after World War I, Yugoslavia after World War II was an artificial construct that could not survive the death of Tito -- and of communism. Iraqi identity is evaporating a little more with each passing bloody day. The Iraqi humpty dumpty is still clinging to the wall and hasn't yet taken a great fall. But the wall is being dismantled daily -- brick by brick.

Iraq has made a military operation against Iran's secret nuclear weapons program infinitely more difficult. Iran's assets in Iraq, including two militias, armed and funded by Tehran, and thousands of underground operatives, could easily turn the tables against the U.S. as it attempts to sharply reduce its troop presence. Comparisons with the Vietnam retreat are a staple in European media. But a disaster in Iraq and an accelerated timetable for U.S. troops withdrawals could have region wide repercussions far more damaging to the U.S. than the loss of Vietnam. The domino theory only applied to Laos and Cambodia where communist troops were already in control of most of the countryside.

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