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Involving Iraqi army seen as gamble in crisis

Facing a deadline of just two months for returning some political power to Iraqis, the Bush administration is squeezed between quelling the insurgency and the search for any idea that reduces the chances of a violent confrontation.
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Facing a deadline of just two months for returning some political power to Iraqis, the Bush administration is squeezed between quelling the insurgency and the search for any idea that reduces the chances of a violent confrontation. But it's uncertain whether some of its new tactics will resolve problems quickly enough for the administration's self-imposed timetable.

The decision to turn to former Iraqi army generals to help regain control of Fallujah, for instance, took place under confusing circumstances, with military officials in Iraq announcing terms that officials in Washington had yet to review. It also came against the backdrop of rising Iraqi anger at the U.S.-led occupation and televised images of possible psychological and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers.

To some analysts, the administration left the impression it was grasping at alternatives, with little sense of how this new tactic fit into the larger strategy or of its possible pitfalls. In much of the world, in fact, the agreement was first described as a retreat by Americans in the face of stubborn resistance by insurgent forces.

Calculated risk
The balancing act will only get harder, analysts said, even after an interim Iraqi government takes charge and begins to prepare for elections. "We are dealing with the foothills. The Himalayas lie beyond," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He added that, among Americans, "the assumption had been that this next foothill [June 30] was the peak."

The decision to pull U.S. Marines back from Fallujah and allow former Iraqi officers to take the lead represents a calculated risk that officers once loyal to Saddam Hussein could indeed prove useful partners in establishing a new Iraqi order, officials said.

U.S. authorities insisted the Marines were not retreating and would maintain command over the new Iraqi force. They also stressed that U.S. forces would retain the right to patrol Fallujah and possibly mount an offensive against foreign fighters taking refuge in the city.

Speaking to reporters, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, stressed that the United States had not relaxed its key demands regarding Fallujah, including the detention of those responsible for the March 31 killing of four U.S. civilian security contractors in the city.

But under the new arrangement, U.S. military commanders will be handing over a large measure of responsibility to Iraqi military leaders who previously had been shunned, and relying on the new force to work inside the city with police and other Iraqi authorities.

'A step-by-step effort'
A senior administration official, briefing reporters yesterday on the condition on anonymity, said the administration was trying to "find the least possible violent outcome to this situation in Fallujah." He said Marines had suspended offensive operations for three weeks, and during this period Iraqis -- "city fathers," sheiks, and now military officers -- had offered assistance in an effort to avoid a bloody military conflict.

"We took the initiative in some of these but not all of these," he said. "But we have to have tangible results out of this. . . . The question is how long do we wait for them to try to produce a positive outcome. We're trying to wait as long as we can."

Abizaid, too, cautioned against expecting quick results. "We should be very careful in thinking that this effort to build this Iraqi capacity will necessarily calm down the situation in Fallujah tonight or over the next several days," he said. "It's a step-by-step effort."

The agreement won rare praise from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the administration's toughest critics on Iraq.

"We have to give the deal a chance to work," Biden said, calling it "a very difficult call." He said he hopes "this decision reflects a new strategy to generate legitimacy by getting more Iraqis and the major powers to buy in to success."

Large risks
But other experts said the arrangement has huge risks, in part because it appears to suggest that there is a reward for determined resistance to the U.S. occupation.

"We are flirting with disaster," said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who until earlier this year was a political adviser to the U.S.-led occupation authority. "It represents a triumph of short-term thinking over the long-term good."

The agreement spared the Marines, at least for now, from attempting a full-scale assault on the city to root out insurgents -- a move that would certainly have cost more U.S. lives and inflamed public opinion in Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world. But it brought no guarantee of success and left U.S. officials struggling to counter the impression they were surrendering and handing the insurgents a public relations victory.

Kenneth Pollack, research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the agreement does not deal with the long-term problem of Fallujah, "where there are 250,000 to 300,000 people who hate our guts." "It's not much more than a face-saving agreement," he added.

He said the standoff in Fallujah is the result of a failure to deal with the anger and resentment growing in the city in the past year because of a lack of military resources. By contrast, he said, an entire brigade -- roughly 5,000 troops -- was dispatched to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, and civil reconstruction was directed there as well. Now that city "is doing pretty well," he said.

'Massive retraining' required
Daniel Byman, an assistant professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, said the Iraqi forces will serve largely as a symbol of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation at first but will require "massive retraining" to be effective.

U.S. officials have acknowledged the failure of many members of Iraq's reconstituted police and military ranks to confront insurgents in Fallujah and other parts of the country since the surge in violence a month ago. In some cases, security officers joined the militants.

But the Fallujah arrangement contains a new element that some analysts said yesterday makes it appear more promising. This time the Iraqi force will be led by former generals who served under Hussein, part of a recent decision by the U.S. occupation authority to reverse last year's ban on such participation. The idea is that these former officers will provide the leadership and cohesion that the new security services have lacked.

"Even if it's a group of Saddam's old guys, their willingness to work with us is a good thing because it indicates that some of the old order believe it's worthwhile to compromise rather than fight and die," Clawson said.

Any interpretation of the new arrangement remained complicated yesterday by conflicting accounts of what it entailed. One senior Pentagon military officer, who was briefed on the plan, said it was his understanding that, in the near-term at least, it involved "a handful of checkpoints being turned over" to the new Iraqi brigade. But journalists in Fallujah reported large contingents of Marines withdrawing from positions in the southern part of the city and moving several miles away.

Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.