President Bush is putting the final touches on his new Iraq policy amid growing skepticism inside and outside the administration that the emerging package of extra troops, economic assistance and political benchmarks for the Baghdad government will make any more than a marginal difference in stabilizing the country.
Washington's debate over Iraq will intensify this week as Bush lays out his plans, probably on Wednesday or Thursday, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials face tough questions from Democrats in congressional hearings.
Although officials said the president has yet to settle on an exact figure of new troops, senior military leaders and commanders are deeply worried that a "surge" of as many as five brigades, or 20,000 troops, in Iraq and Kuwait would tax U.S. ground forces already stretched to the breaking point -- and may still prove inadequate to quell sectarian violence and the Sunni insurgency. Some senior U.S. officials think it could even backfire.
"There is a lot of concern that this won't work," said one military official not authorized to speak publicly about the debate at the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the political and economic ideas under consideration all appear to be variations on initiatives that U.S. and Iraqi authorities have proved unable to implement successfully since the 2003 invasion or have tried and found wanting, according to former U.S. officials and experts on reconstructing war-torn countries.
Many officials at the State and Defense departments also doubt that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is capable of making the necessary reforms, given its track record of promising but not delivering since taking power in May and despite Maliki's assurances in a speech yesterday that he would hold Iraqis accountable for implementing a new Baghdad security plan.
A sense that the White House is preparing more of the same is generating deep skepticism among Democrats in Congress, many of whom have signaled strongly in recent days that they would resist sending additional troops to Iraq. And although Republicans say they are open to what Bush proposes this week, they are also asking much more pointed questions about the premises of the White House Iraq policy.
Administration officials are pushing lawmakers and the public to withhold judgment until they see all the elements of the new Iraq policy. Bush consulted with advisers yesterday, and White House speechwriters were working on this week's address. There are signs that there could be some surprises as the administration's debate moves from the staff level to the final deliberations of the president and his closest advisers.
Responding to skepticism about Maliki within some parts of the administration, the White House may make a deeper involvement in Iraq contingent on Maliki cracking down on militias and death squads while also undertaking bold political initiatives and developing a wider economic plan, U.S. officials say. The addition of new U.S. troops, for example, may be phased over several months and conditioned on Iraq following through on promised political reforms, the officials said.
One senior White House official said yesterday that the president considers the skepticism of lawmakers and the public "warranted" and that Bush will not "commit resources to a strategy that is not working." But the official said Bush was heartened by recent promises and plans from Maliki, citing the prime minister's speech in Baghdad yesterday in which he pledged a crackdown on sectarian militias, with U.S. assistance.
Regional loyalties in Iraq
The official said U.S. and Iraqi leaders have been refining a new Iraqi security plan, first discussed when Bush and Maliki met in Jordan in November, in which Iraqi forces would take the lead with Americans in support. "It is not just rhetoric," the official said of Maliki. "He is actually putting forward specific plans and making different commitments than he has in the past." Speaking on the condition of anonymity because the president has not settled on a final plan, the official said Bush expects "a different result" from that of previous security plans.
Others have doubts. "I don't know that the Iraqi government has ever demonstrated ability to lead the country, and we shouldn't be surprised," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, who was the first U.S. official in charge of postwar Baghdad. "You'll never find, in my lifetime, one man that all the Iraqis will coalesce around." Iraqis are too divided among sectarian, ethnic and tribal loyalties, he said, and their loyalties are regional, not national.
Leon E. Panetta, a member of the Iraq Study Group, which recently delivered a wide-ranging set of recommendations about the way forward in Iraq, said in an interview that the test for him of the seriousness of the president's proposal will be whether Bush, in fact, conditions continued U.S. involvement on tangible progress from the Iraqi government.
"There has got to be some prospect that we are not just going to continue an open-ended commitment," said Panetta, who served in the Clinton White House as chief of staff.
As of yesterday, the president had not settled on a precise plan for adding to the 132,000 U.S. troops already in Iraq, officials said. Senior military and administration officials privately admit their deep concerns that the troop increase will backfire -- and leave the United States with no options left in six to eight months.
They note that since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the U.S. military has repeatedly carried out temporary troop increases of more than 20,000, but violence has continued to rise. The main difference under the new plan is that additional troops would be concentrated in the Baghdad vicinity, where there are currently seven U.S. brigades, and the increase could last longer, from six to 12 months, Pentagon officials said.
Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are worried about overstretching the Army and Marines.
The active-duty Army and Marine Corps lack a significant pool of ready and available forces to send to Iraq. The Army has one fully ready brigade of 3,500 to 4,000 troops on alert to deploy at any time. That on-alert brigade, most recently from the 82nd Airborne Division, has left for Kuwait in what could be the first phase of a troop increase, requiring that another unit take its place.
Less time to train, rebuild
As a result, increasing ground troops would depend largely on extending units' time in Iraq and accelerating those preparing to go -- meaning longer war-zone tours and shorter periods back home for thousands of soldiers and Marines.
Under the plan, for instance, Army brigades would leave for Iraq sooner than planned, meaning soldiers would have less than 12 months at home to train and rebuild between tours -- a "red line" that outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said he did not want to cross, according to a senior military official.
During its two-month interagency review, the Bush administration has struggled the most to come up with proposals to jump-start the stalled political process in Iraq, according to U.S. officials and Western diplomats. The fate of the revised strategy will be determined as much by new movement on Iraq's combustible political front as by success on the battlefield, administration officials said.
But the emerging package looks slim and, absent last-minute additions, appears to be more of the same, according to sources who have been briefed.
The centerpiece of the political plan is the creation of a national reconciliation government that would bring together the two main Shiite parties with the two largest Kurdish parties and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, according to Iraqi and U.S. officials. The goal is to marginalize Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the largest and most powerful Shiite militia and head of a group that has 30 seats in parliament and five cabinet posts.
To ensure participation of Sunni moderates, the Bush administration is pressing the Maliki government to take three other major steps: Amend the constitution to address Sunni concerns, pass a law on the distribution of Iraq's oil revenue and change the ruling that forbids the participation of former Baath Party officials.
The three major economic options on the table would revive dormant state-owned industries, launch a micro-finance program to give small loans to generate new businesses and expand a U.S. Agency for International Development stabilization program.
Short-term work program
A fourth option would add major funds to a short-term work program to hire Iraqis to clean up trash or do repairs after U.S. and Iraqi troops secure neighborhoods. This Pentagon-run program is a way to lure unemployed men who had joined militias back into the mainstream economy, at least briefly, with the U.S. intention that Iraq would eventually spend its own money to create permanent jobs.
The idea to revive state-owned industries has come full circle. Iraq's economy under Saddam Hussein was state-controlled. When the first U.S. team arrived, its members looked to reenergize the industries as a key element in jump-starting the economy. But the subsequent Coalition Provisional Authority, run by L. Paul Bremer, opted to scrap the effort and emphasize a free-market economy, even though Iraq was ill equipped to make a dramatic conversion. The failure of a free market and the lack of both local and foreign investment has led the Defense Department to launch a massive reassessment.
Apparently absent from the final Iraq plan is any effort to engage Syria and Iran in trying to stabilize the country, a key recommendation from the Iraq Study Group, though the president will probably talk about new efforts to try to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace process. Rice is expected to visit the Middle East to launch the effort later this month.