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New Iraq strategy focuses on bad actors

Top U.S. commanders and diplomats in are completing a far-reaching campaign plan for a new U.S. strategy, laying out military and political goals and endorsing the selective removal of hardened sectarian actors from Iraq's security forces and government.
Dick Cheney, David Petraeus, Ryan Crocker
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, speaks during a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq, on Wednesday, May 9. Gerald Herbert / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Top U.S. commanders and diplomats in Iraq are completing a far-reaching campaign plan for a new U.S. strategy, laying out military and political goals and endorsing the selective removal of hardened sectarian actors from Iraq's security forces and government.

The classified plan, scheduled to be finished by May 31, is a joint effort between Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American general in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. More than half a dozen people with knowledge of the plan discussed its contents, although most asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it to reporters.

The overarching aim of the plan, which sets goals for the end of this year and the end of 2008, is more political than military: to negotiate settlements between warring factions in Iraq from the national level down to the local level. In essence, it is as much about the political deals needed to defuse a civil war as about the military operations aimed at quelling a complex insurgency, said officials with knowledge of the plan.

The groundwork for the campaign plan was laid out in an assessment formulated by Petraeus's senior counterinsurgency adviser, David J. Kilcullen, with about 20 military officers, State Department officials and other experts in Baghdad known as the Joint Strategic Assessment Team. Their report, finished last month, was approved by Petraeus and Crocker as the basis of a formal campaign plan that will assign specific tasks for military commands and civilian agencies in Iraq.

The plan anticipates keeping U.S. troop levels elevated into next year but also intends to significantly increase the size of the 144,000-strong Iraqi army, considered one of the more reliable institutions in the country and without which a U.S. withdrawal would spell chaos. "You will have to do something about the sucking noise when we leave," said a U.S. officer familiar with the plan.

New focus on building security, trust
The plan has three pillars to be carried out simultaneously -- in contrast to the prior sequential strategy of "clear, hold and build." One shifts the immediate emphasis of military operations away from transitioning to Iraqi security forces -- the primary focus under the former top U.S. commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. -- toward protecting Iraq's population in trouble areas, a central objective of the troop increase that President Bush announced in January.

"The revised counterinsurgency approach we're taking now really focuses on protecting those people 24/7 . . . and that competent non-sectarian institutions take the baton from us," said Kilcullen, offering an overview of the campaign plan.

In contrast, he said, U.S. operations in 2004 and 2005 "had the unintended consequence of killing off Iraqis who supported us. We would clear an area, encourage people to sign up for government programs, but then we would have to leave and those people would be left exposed and would get killed." The plan recognizes that there are too few troops to protect all of Iraq's population, and so focuses on critical regions such as greater Baghdad.

‘Bridging strategy’
Next, the plan emphasizes building the government's capacity to function, admitting severe weaknesses in government ministries and often nonexistent institutional links between the central government and provincial and local governments. This, too, is in contrast with Casey's strategy, which focused on rapidly handing over responsibility to Iraq's government.

Such a rapid transition "was derailed as a strategy," said one person involved with the plan. Instead, he described the focus of the next 18 to 21 months as "a bridging strategy" to set the necessary conditions for a handover.

Ousting troublemakers
Finally, the campaign plan aims to purge Iraq's leadership of a small but influential number of officials and commanders whose sectarian and criminal agendas are thwarting U.S. efforts. It recognizes that the Iraqi government is deeply infiltrated by militia and corrupt officials who are "part of the problem" and are maneuvering to kill off opponents, install sectarian allies and otherwise solidify their power for when U.S. troops withdraw, said one person familiar with the plan.

"For the surge to work, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus have to identify the Iraqi nationalists and empower them, while minimizing" two other groups -- namely, "the militant sectarians . . . and the profoundly, personally corrupt," said Toby Dodge, a Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London who recently returned from Iraq. Dodge, one of the assessment team members, was speaking in his capacity as an Iraq expert and declined to comment on the plan.

"The focus has to be on abusive sectarian actors" involved in orchestrating sectarian killings and also obstructing key political legislation and financial reforms, agreed a U.S. official involved with the plan. "You will never eliminate sectarian tendencies, [so] you want to go after those who are abusive. You have to focus on setting some examples, but you need good evidence to support that," he said.

"We try to gather evidence in conjunction with the Iraqis, that convinces the Iraqis that they need to act. . . . We are not running our own death squads or vigilante activity," a senior official in Baghdad said. One officer familiar with the plan said: "For us to do it would be horrible. But for the Iraqis to do it would be hard."

At test of willpower
Indeed, one source of pessimism about the plan is whether the Iraqi government has the means and willpower to weed out sectarian officials and commanders, in an atmosphere complicated by rumors and ambiguous intelligence.

"Very often you won't get ironclad information. Very often they cover their tracks," said Stephen Biddle, a member of the assessment team and military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, who spoke in his capacity as an independent analyst.

While saying they are confident that the United States is making headway in improving security, several officials involved with the plan expressed doubt in the Iraqi leadership. "I have less confidence about . . . the Iraqi government and whether they will be able to modify their behavior in the time we have available because of the U.S. political cycle," a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said.

A primary element of Petraeus's strategy of placing U.S. troops with Iraqi army forces and Iraqi police in the same outposts is to monitor for sectarian abuses. The quality of evidence will determine whether the United States will pressure the Iraqi government to fire the wrongdoers -- by withholding military or economic aid or threatening to expose them in the news media -- or to target them for capture and criminal punishment.

The problem, officials said, is that the U.S. drive to make Iraqi forces independent has already limited U.S. leverage. "We've surrendered a lot of levers that we need," the senior official in Baghdad said.

Looking beyond Baghdad politicians
Also part of the plan is reaching out to grass-roots groups such as tribes, religious leaders and provincial administrators that are moving forward on reconciliation efforts, said Kilcullen, noting a tribal agreement in Babil province last week to end violence and a tribal movement in Anbar to oppose al-Qaeda. "We should not restrict our view of what a 'political' settlement is, solely to the Iraqi government -- civil society also has a really key role to play."

Efforts at negotiated settlements brokered by U.S. and Iraqi officials will extend to a broad spectrum of Iraqi groups, including some that have killed U.S. troops -- a source of consternation for some U.S. officers. But they will exclude groups such as al-Qaeda that are considered "irreconcilable," officials said.

The plan is also designed to shore up Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, even though some U.S. commanders regard him as beholden to narrow sectarian interests. But they support Maliki for pragmatic as well as political reasons: As pressure mounts in Congress for a troop withdrawal, time lost reorganizing the government could mean losing the war, officials said.

"Maliki is the chosen vehicle; he's the one-trick pony," Dodge said in an interview from London. "Everyone recognizes that the success or failure [of U.S. policy] would be delivered through the office of the prime minister" and there is no discussion in Baghdad of removing him, he said.

Safety first, reconciliation second
The campaign plan upholds Bush's long-term goal of creating a stable and unified Iraq that is a partner against terrorism. Yet because of uncertainty over Maliki's intentions, the plan lowers medium-term expectations for reconciliation in Iraq. Instead, it aims for bargains to curb sectarian violence.

"Our notion of 'reconciliation' . . . is not necessarily where Iraqis are at right now," said Kilcullen, explaining that the word has no equivalent in Arabic. "The tribal and community leaders I talk to are more pragmatic and are looking for a compact or a settlement that brings an end to the violence. Restoring relationships is separate."

The campaign plan is being formulated by a Joint Campaign Plan Redesign Team, which includes members of the JSAT as well as other military planners and civilian officials. The final document will be signed by Petraeus and Crocker.

The plan is a thick tome with more than 20 annexes on topics such as policy on Iraqi security forces, detainees, the rule of law and regional diplomatic engagement, one participant said.