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(photo credit: AP)
A doomsday scenario: America pulls prematurely out of Iraq. A civil war erupts and turns into a bloodbath ripping apart the country. Neighboring countries are motivated to come to the rescue - Iran invades to save the Shi'ites while Syria and Saudi Arabia join in to save the Sunnis. Turkey also decides to get involved and invades Kurdish Iraq to prevent the establishment of an independent state there.
This is one of Israel's greatest fears when it comes to America's plan to withdraw from Iraq, one that, at the moment, the defense establishment would like to believe is more fantasy than reality. But if the US does ultimately run away from Iraq, a Shi'ite takeover could happen in just a matter of months, one top official predicted Wednesday.
The conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton report, published on Wednesday, did not come as a surprise to the Israeli defense establishment.
The call for direct talks between Israel and Syria and a US advocated push for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace were not surprising. Neither was the idea that President George W. Bush sit down and negotiate with Iran and Syria in an effort to stabilize Iraq.
But what was concerning for officials was the urgent call to begin pulling American troops out of Iraq, which if done prematurely, high-ranking Israeli government and defense officials warned, could destabilize the entire region and bring about the rise of radical Shi'ite regimes across Israel's eastern front - in Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Bush's nominee for secretary of defense Robert Gates voiced these concerns on Tuesday during his confirmation hearing at the US Senate.
"My greatest worry if we mishandle the next year or two and leave Iraq in chaos is that a variety of regional powers will become involved in Iraq, and we will have a regional conflict on our hands," he said.
In addition to the possibility of a regional war, Iraq would most certainly turn into a haven and breeding ground for Islamic extremism. Terrorism would flourish there and Al-Qaida cells that were kicked out of Afghanistan and then Chechnya would only escalate their terror attacks in Iraq and begin spreading out to other countries right at Israel's doorstep, like Jordan and Egypt.
Another point of concern is that a premature withdrawal from Iraq would signify weakness not only for the US but also for Israel. "Our deterrence relies on a strong America," the top government official said. "If America is presumed weak, then Israel is also presumed to be weak."
Iran and Syria already expressed their willingness to sit down and talk with the US about Iraq. The question is, however, what price Bush will be forced to pay to obtain stability from these two countries, which until not long ago were part of the infamous "axis of evil."
One defense official raised the possibility this week that during the talks, the Iranians would ask for a guarantee that the US not work to undermine the current regime and for the US to turn a "blind eye" to their nuclear development program. In return, Iran would guarantee to help stabilize Iraq by damping down the Shi'ite violence, thereby enabling a US troop withdrawal.
What this would mean for Israel, the official said, is that it would be left alone to deal with stopping the Iranian nuclear threat.