The Iraq Study Group began two days of intensive behind-closed-doors deliberations yesterday as the White House conceded that Iraq has moved into a dangerous new phase of warfare requiring changes in strategy. In a sign of the growing global concern about Iraq's fate, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for immediate steps to prevent the country from crumbling into all-out civil war.
"Given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact, we are almost there," Annan said when a reporter asked about the prospects of civil war in Iraq.
"Obviously, everyone would agree things are not proceeding well enough or fast enough," national security adviser Stephen A. Hadley told reporters traveling to Estonia with President Bush. Washington must find ways to "adapt," Hadley added.
Events over the past week, including the deadliest attacks since the war began in March 2003, have created a new sense of diplomatic urgency about finding a viable strategy to contain Iraq's violence and limit spillover damage across the region. The White House again resisted assertions that Iraq is now in a civil war, but that stance is increasingly hard to defend, according to analysts, diplomats and even some U.S. officials in private.
"While the situation on the ground is very serious, neither Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki nor we believe that Iraq is in a civil war. The Iraqi government is making slow but sure progress on important issues that will help stop the violence and bring the country together," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said yesterday.
At least one Iraqi leader says otherwise. "It's worse than a civil war. In a civil war, you at least know which factions are fighting each other," lamented a senior member of Iraq's government in an interview a few hours after Johndroe's comments. "We don't even know that anymore. It's so bloody confused."
Saudi Arabia is so concerned about the damage that the conflict in Iraq is doing across the region that it basically summoned Vice President Cheney for talks over the weekend, according to U.S. officials and foreign diplomats. The visit was originally portrayed as U.S. outreach to its oil-rich Arab ally.
In a reflection of the growing new dimension of civil strife, a senior U.S. intelligence official said yesterday that the militia of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr has grown eightfold over the past year and now fields 40,000 to 60,000 men. That makes it more effective than the Iraqi government's army, the official indicated .
The Iraqi army has about 134,000 men, but about half of them are only doing stationary guard duty, the official said. Of the other half who conduct operations, only about 10 battalions are effective -- or well under 10,000 men.
Sadr is so powerful today that if provincial elections were held now, he would sweep most of the south and also take Baghdad, said the intelligence officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.
‘Beholden to Sadr’
Iraq's prime minister "doesn't have any coercive powers of his own," he said, calling Maliki "beholden to Sadr." Maliki won the prime minister's job with backing from Sadr, whose political bloc holds 30 seats in parliament.
Addressing the sectarian problem by engaging Iraq's neighbors, notably Iran and Syria, is an idea gaining favor within the 10-member, bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is in the final phase of its eight-month search for a new policy. But the panel was still deeply divided over recommendations going into its meeting yesterday.
The group, led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), hopes to issue its recommendations before Congress adjourns next month. Although deliberations are secret, the five Republicans and five Democrats are exploring ideas that include a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Some Democrats on the panel favor a plan by congressional Democrats to name a date to begin withdrawal, as a way to pressure Iraqis to show more leadership. Members of the board were divided, however, over how many troops and how fast to withdraw, sources close to the group said.
President Bush is due to meet with Maliki on Thursday in Jordan to review the situation. "We're clearly in a new phase, characterized by this increasing sectarian violence that requires us obviously to adapt to that new phase, and these two leaders need to be talking about how to do that," Hadley said to reporters.
Hadley said he expected the two leaders to discuss whether Washington should talk to Iran and Syria, although he expected the issue to be brought up by Maliki, not Bush. Maliki has "strong views," he added, that any conversation with Syria and Iran "ought to be a conversation by Iraqis."
In a subtle nod to the Iraq Study Group, Hadley said that the president plans to listen to the range of voices for ideas but that Bush will reassure Maliki the president "will be crafting the way forward on Iraq" primarily in collaboration with Baghdad.
‘Pick a winner’
But in a sign of the discord in Washington, the senior U.S. intelligence official said the current situation requires that the administration abandon its long-held goal of national reconciliation and instead "pick a winner" in Iraq. He said he understands that means the Sunnis are likely to bolt from the fragile government. "That's the price you're going to have to pay," he said.
The United States also needs to reexamine other basic assumptions, he said. To be effective, for example, the Iraqi security forces -- including army and police -- should be roughly doubled from the current goal of 325,000 to about 650,000, which would require about three years of recruiting and training, he said. The expanded military, he added, would probably become overwhelmingly Shiite and Kurdish -- an outcome that many Sunnis fear.
The United States also needs to move quickly to deal with a serious problem of overcrowded prisons that has led the government to free about 2,000 fighters each moth to make room for new prisoners, he said. Those released aren't scofflaws, he said: "These are the hard-core guys."