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Armitage Details U.S. Dilemma in Iraq

America's second-highest ranking diplomat predicts that violence will continue regardless of the outcome of the Jan. 30 Iraq elections.

And while U.S. forces are needed for now, he says that a long-term American presence in Iraq would undermine efforts to create a stable nation there.

"I think civil war is not in the offing," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told NPR's Steve Inskeep Thursday. "But I think most in government expect the violence to continue long after these elections."

In an interview from his office at Foggy Bottom, Armitage said U.S. forces are needed for the time being, but added that a long-term presence would undermine efforts to rebuild.

"Our friends in Iraq, that is those Iraqis that want us to succeed, in a way need us to leave," he says. "And our enemies, those that are fighting against other Iraqis, need us to stay because, in a way, it justifies their continued jihad against us."

And if a new government asks U.S. troops to leave?

"We would leave. Period." Armitage says. "We have said very clearly to the U.S. Congress that if that circumstance exists, then we would leave, period. No qualifications, no weasel words."

Armitage is about to depart the Bush administration, along with Secretary of State Colin Powell, as the president begins a second term. Under Powell and Armitage, the State Department was often seen to be at odds with the White House. Armitage downplayed that characterization.

"Many in Washington want to make all these battles -- quote, unquote -- personal... It's necessary that we have a quote, battle, unquote," he said.

"I don't think there were fundamental differences. A lot of things changed after 9/11 and I don't think there were huge differences of opinion about where we want this nation to be or how to use all of our instruments of national power for the greater good of this country."

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.