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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A U.S. victory in Iraq is no longer possible under the conditions the Bush administration hopes to achieve, but a quick withdrawal of American troops would have "disastrous consequences," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said Sunday.
President Bush has said the United States will remain in Iraq until the country's government "can sustain itself and defend itself," and a top Iraqi official disputed Kissinger's assessment of the three-year-old war in an interview with CNN.
But in a BBC interview Sunday morning, Kissinger said the U.S. course needs to be redefined -- and the breakup of Iraq could be the eventual outcome.
Kissinger served as national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations and has advised the Bush administration on Iraq. In August 2005, he wrote in The Washington Post that "victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy."
But on Sunday he said a military victory in Iraq was no longer in the cards.
"If you mean by clear military victory an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible," he said.
His comments come as a commission led by another former top diplomat, James Baker, prepares to offer its recommendations for a change of strategy in the war. The conflict has become increasingly unpopular in the United States as the American death toll nears 2,900, while waves of sectarian violence over the past nine months have left thousands of Iraqis dead.
However, a premature withdrawal of all 140,000 American troops now in the country risks bringing about a "dramatic collapse" of Iraq and eventually require U.S. forces to return to the region, Kissinger said.
Iraqi ambassador disputes Kissinger's conclusions
Instead, he recommended an international conference with Iraq's neighbors, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and countries he said have a "major interest" in the outcome -- such as south Asian nuclear rivals India and Pakistan -- to craft a settlement.
"I think we need to separate ourselves from the civil war, and we have to move at some early point to some international definition of what a legitimate outcome is," Kissinger told the BBC. "By legitimate, I mean something that can be supported by the surrounding states and by ourselves and our allies."
The partition of Iraq on ethnic lines "might be an outcome," he acknowledged, "but it might be better not to organize it that way on a formal basis."
Samir al-Sumaidie, Iraq's ambassador to the United States, disputed Kissinger's conclusions. He said his government still could prevail over the chaos of a largely Sunni Arab insurgency, sectarian militias and Islamic fighters who swear loyalty to the al Qaeda terrorist network.
"I think a lot of people in Iraq, the members of the government and the members of the policy council for national security all believe that the situation is retrievable," he told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."
"It's doable, but we need to have support of the right kind," al-Sumaidie said. "Now we have a lot of pressure on us, not only from our regional neighbors who are interfering, but pressures from our own friends."
Voters' dismay over Iraq contributed to the Democratic takeover of Congress in the November 7 midterm elections. The incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, has called for a "phased redeployment" of U.S. troops as a way of pressuring Iraq's government to make the political compromises needed to end the violence.
"You want to make the point to the Iraqis that, folks, you've got to take responsibility for your own country," said Levin, a Michigan Democrat. "We cannot do it for you."
But Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, repeated his argument Sunday that more U.S. troops, not fewer, are needed in Iraq. He told ABC's "This Week" that such an increase would put "a terrible strain" on the Army and Marines. "But there's only one thing worse, and that is defeat," he said.
McCain is expected to be the ranking Republican on Levin's committee in the new Congress and took the first step toward a possible presidential bid in 2008 last week. He said the United States has been losing the war in Iraq and that American troops have been "fighting and dying for a failed policy."
"There's no good options," he said. "But the consequences of failure are severe, and I believe that we must do what's necessary to prevail. And I understand how terrible this is. The young men and women who are in the military today, and God bless them, they'll respond if called upon to."