By Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 14, 2005
The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad.
The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say.
"What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground," said a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion. "We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning."
Administration officials still emphasize how much they have achieved despite the chaos that followed the invasion and the escalating insurgency. "Iraqis are taking control of their country, building a free nation that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself. And we're helping Iraqis succeed," President Bush said yesterday in his radio address.
Iraqi officials yesterday struggled to agree on a draft constitution by a deadline of tomorrow so the document can be submitted to a vote in October. The political transition would be completed in December by elections for a permanent government.
But the realities of daily life are a constant reminder of how the initial U.S. ambitions have not been fulfilled in ways that Americans and Iraqis once anticipated. Many of Baghdad's 6 million people go without electricity for days in 120-degree heat. Parents fearful of kidnapping are keeping children indoors.
Barbers post signs saying they do not shave men, after months of barbers being killed by religious extremists. Ethnic or religious-based militias police the northern and southern portions of Iraq. Analysts estimate that in the whole of Iraq, unemployment is 50 percent to 65 percent.
U.S. officials say no turning point forced a reassessment. "It happened rather gradually," said the senior official, triggered by everything from the insurgency to shifting budgets to U.S. personnel changes in Baghdad.
The ferocious debate over a new constitution has particularly driven home the gap between the original U.S. goals and the realities after almost 28 months. The U.S. decision to invade Iraq was justified in part by the goal of establishing a secular and modern Iraq that honors human rights and unites disparate ethnic and religious communities.
But whatever the outcome on specific disputes, the document on which Iraq's future is to be built will require laws to be compliant with Islam. Kurds and Shiites are expecting de facto long-term political privileges. And women's rights will not be as firmly entrenched as Washington has tried to insist, U.S. officials and Iraq analysts say.
"We set out to establish a democracy, but we're slowly realizing we will have some form of Islamic republic," said another U.S. official familiar with policymaking from the beginning, who like some others interviewed would speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. "That process is being repeated all over."
U.S. officials now acknowledge that they misread the strength of the sentiment among Kurds and Shiites to create a special status. The Shiites' request this month for autonomy to be guaranteed in the constitution stunned the Bush administration, even after more than two years of intense intervention in Iraq's political process, they said.
"We didn't calculate the depths of feeling in both the Kurdish and Shiite communities for a winner-take-all attitude," said Judith S. Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq analyst at the National Defense University.
In the race to meet a sequence of fall deadlines, the process of forging national unity behind the constitution is largely being scrapped, current and former officials involved in the transition said.
"We are definitely cutting corners and lowering our ambitions in democracy building," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University democracy expert who worked with the U.S. occupation government and wrote the book "Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq."
"Under pressure to get a constitution done, they've lowered their own ambitions in terms of getting a document that is going to be very far-reaching and democratic. We also don't have the time to go through the process we envisioned when we wrote the interim constitution -- to build a democratic culture and consensus through debate over a permanent constitution," he said.
The goal now is to ensure a constitution that can be easily amended later so Iraq can grow into a democracy, U.S. officials say.
On security, the administration originally expected the U.S.-led coalition to be welcomed with rice and rosewater, traditional Arab greetings, with only a limited reaction from loyalists of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. The surprising scope of the insurgency and influx of foreign fighters has forced Washington to repeatedly lower expectations -- about the time-frame for quelling the insurgency and creating an effective and cohesive Iraqi force capable of stepping in, U.S. officials said.
Killings of members of the Iraqi security force have tripled since January. Iraq's ministry of health estimates that bombings and other attacks have killed 4,000 civilians in Baghdad since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's interim government took office April 28.
Last week was the fourth-worst week of the whole war for U.S. military deaths in combat, and August already is the worst month for deaths of members of the National Guard and Reserve.
Attacks on U.S. convoys by insurgents using roadside bombs have doubled over the past year, Army Brig. Gen. Yves Fontaine said Friday. Convoys ferrying food, fuel, water, arms and equipment from Kuwait, Jordan and Turkey are attacked about 30 times a week, Fontaine said.
"There has been a realistic reassessment of what it is possible to achieve in the short term and fashion a partial exit strategy," Yaphe said. "This change is dictated not just by events on the ground but by unrealistic expectations at the start."
Washington now does not expect to fully defeat the insurgency before departing, but instead to diminish it, officials and analysts said. There is also growing talk of turning over security responsibilities to the Iraqi forces even if they are not fully up to original U.S. expectations, in part because they have local legitimacy that U.S. troops often do not.
"We've said we won't leave a day before it's necessary. But necessary is the key word -- necessary for them or for us? When we finally depart, it will probably be for us," a U.S. official said.
Pressed by the cost of fighting an escalating insurgency, U.S. expectations for rebuilding Iraq -- and its $20 billion investment -- have fallen the farthest, current and former officials say.
Pentagon officials originally envisioned Iraq's oil revenue paying many post-invasion expenses. But Iraq, ranked among world leaders behind Saudi Arabia in proven oil reserves, is incapable of producing enough refined fuel amid a car-buying boom that has put an estimated 1 million more vehicles on the road after the invasion. Lines for subsidized cheap gas stretch for miles every day in Baghdad.
Oil production is estimated at 2.22 million barrels a day, short of the goal of 2.5 million. Iraq's pre-war high was 2.67 million barrels a day.
The United States had high hopes of quick, big-budget fixes for the electrical power system that would show Iraqis tangible benefits from the ouster of Hussein. But inadequate training for Iraqi staff, regional rivalries restricting the power flow to Baghdad, inadequate fuel for electrical generators and attacks on the infrastructure have contributed to the worst summer of electrical shortages in the capital.
Water is also a "tough, tough" situation in a desert country, said a U.S. official in Baghdad familiar with reconstruction issues. Pumping stations depend on electricity, and engineers now say the system has hundreds of thousands of leaks.
"The most thoroughly dashed expectation was the ability to build a robust self-sustaining economy. We're nowhere near that. State industries, electricity are all below what they were before we got there," said Wayne White, former head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team who is now at the Middle East Institute. "The administration says Saddam ran down the country. But most damage was from looting [after the invasion], which took down state industries, large private manufacturing, the national electric" system.
Ironically, White said, the initial ambitions may have complicated the U.S. mission: "In order to get out earlier, expectations are going to have to be lower, even much lower. The higher your expectation, the longer you have to stay. Getting out is going to be a more important consideration than the original goals were. They were unrealistic."
Knickmeyer reported from Baghdad.