As pressure mounts for a change of course in Iraq, the Bush administration is groping for a viable new strategy for the president to unveil by Christmas, with deliberations now focused on three main options to redefine the U.S. military and political engagement, according to officials familiar with the debate.
The major alternatives include a short-term surge of 15,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. Another strategy would redirect the U.S. military away from the internal strife to focus mainly on hunting terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. And the third would concentrate political attention on supporting the majority Shiites and abandon U.S. efforts to reach out to Sunni insurgents.
As President Bush and his advisers rush to complete their crash review and craft a new formula in the next two weeks, some close to the process said the major goal seems to be to stake out alternatives to the plan presented this week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The White House denied trying to brush off the study group's report and said those recommendations are being considered alongside internal reviews.
But the growing undercurrent of discussions within the administration is shifting responsibility for Iraq's problems to Iraqis. Sources familiar with the deliberations describe fatigue, frustration and a growing desire to disengage from Iraq. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations.
"None of us see the situation in Iraq as favorable. We all see it as extremely difficult," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.
Bevy of meetings planned
Bush will devote most of next week to his Iraq review. He plans to visit the State Department on Monday to consult with his foreign policy team, then he will host independent Iraq experts in the Oval Office. The next day, he will hold a videoconference with U.S. military commanders and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Iraq. He will travel to the Pentagon for more consultations on Wednesday.
The crash White House review -- which involves the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon -- is tentatively expected to lead to a speech to the nation the week of Dec. 18, officials say.
Shift to strictly anti-terror role?
While one of the options involves a surge of U.S. troops, there is no agreement on what the mission of those forces would be, sources say. Discussions center on accelerating the training of Iraqi forces and helping secure Baghdad before turning it over to the Iraqis. The goal generally could be to improve Iraq's defense capabilities so U.S. combat troops could begin to withdraw faster.
The second idea is the "al-Qaeda option," which would transform the U.S. mission to focus on fighting terrorism and would disengage forces from domestic aspects of the multisided conflict. U.S. troops would take a backseat on the Shiite-Sunni conflict and instead hunt down al-Qaeda operatives, the sources say.
On the ground, for example, that could mean a shift away from operations in Baghdad's volatile Sadr City slum, or from efforts to stop car bombs and sectarian attacks. The administration is increasingly resigned to the fact that it can neither prevent nor intervene in Iraq's sectarian war, which has begun to supersede both the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda's operations, the sources say.
The two military options are not necessarily linked. Some in the interagency discussions favor both, while others support the al-Qaeda option but not a military surge, the sources say.
Pursuing an ‘80 percent solution’
On the political front, the administration is focusing increasingly on variations of a "Shiite tilt," sometimes called an "80 percent solution," that would bolster the political center of Iraq and effectively leave in charge the Shiite and Kurdish parties that account for 80 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and that won elections a year ago.
Vice President Cheney's office has most vigorously argued for the "80 percent solution," in terms of both realities on the ground and the history of U.S. engagement with the Shiites, sources say. A source familiar with the discussions said Cheney argued this week that the United States could not again be seen to abandon the Shiites, Iraq's largest population group, after calling in 1991 for them to rise up against then-President Saddam Hussein and then failing to support them when they did. Thousands were killed in a huge crackdown.
Of the major proposals under discussion, only the "al-Qaeda option" is reflected in the Iraq Study Group's report. Recommendation 43 calls for the United States to shift priority to "the training, equipping, advising, and support mission and to counterterrorism operations."
Panel wary of more troops
The study group says it could support a short-term troop surge but notes that "past experience indicates that the violence would simply rekindle as soon as U.S. forces are moved to another area." The report does not, in the end, recommend more troops.
Senior administration officials caution that the review process is still fluid. "I don't think we're at the stage where we're coalescing around an option," said a top official who declined to speak on the record about internal deliberations. "These are everything's-on-the-table kinds of discussions."
Yet as it changes course, the administration is still struggling to resolve central issues, including how much it trusts Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to tackle the two issues basic to stability: reconciliation and the militias that are fueling the sectarian violence. Despite Bush's public endorsement of Maliki after their meeting in Amman last week, U.S. officials have not yet decided whether he has the will or the capability to take on his brethren Shiites in the name of national reconciliation -- either by dismantling their militias or getting them to embrace the Sunni minority.
Mending fences with Iraq Study Group
Bush aides said the president has been misinterpreted by those who believe he is giving the back of his hand to the Iraq Study Group, led by former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and former secretary of state James A. Baker III, and they insist that the report's ideas are now part of the administration's review. "There's not a purpose to distinguish or make a distinction from the Baker-Hamilton commission," the senior official said. "In fact, many of their proposals are being seriously considered."
If anything, the official argued, the commission gave Bush some running room by rejecting a rapid troop withdrawal, something some Democrats have advocated. "Nobody's going to go below what they said," the official said, meaning that because the study group set a goal of pulling out combat units by early 2008, that is now the earliest that troops could be withdrawn.
But the stature of commission members means that the White House will have to justify any deviations from their plan. "The onus will be on us to explain why we are doing something they recommended or why not," the official said. "They can't just be jettisoned. They have to be dealt with."
The president, who met yesterday with congressional leaders, vowed to work with Democrats to forge a common strategy. "We talked about the need for a new way forward in Iraq," Bush told reporters. "And we talked about the need to work together on this important subject."