New Questions in Iraq

Sunday, March 12, 2006

IT'S BEEN less than four months since President Bush unveiled his "strategy for victory" in Iraq, but already he could use a Plan B. U.S. policy, reiterated by Mr. Bush in his radio address yesterday, has been based on the notion that an Iraqi national government will emerge from December's elections and gradually gain strength, defended by the new Iraqi army and a diminishing number of U.S. and allied troops. But three months after the election, there is no new Iraqi government. The political impasse in Baghdad is so great that the new parliament will not meet by today's constitutionally mandated deadline, and there is no indication when or even if there will be agreement on a prime minister.

The two-sided war between a U.S.-backed regime and foreign and Iraqi Sunni insurgents has morphed into a multi-sided sectarian struggle in which U.S. and Iraqi government troops increasingly play the role of buffers or bystanders. This creates a new set of strategic questions that the Bush administration has hardly begun to answer: How can a civil war be stopped? And if it escalates, how should U.S. forces respond to it? The keen and candid U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, summed up the situation this way for the Los Angeles Times on Monday: "We have opened the Pandora's box, and the question is, what is the way forward?"

Mr. Khalilzad offers a partial answer, which is to rescue the failing political process. The ambassador has been working tirelessly to promote agreement on a "unity government" but faces the daunting reality that Iraq's four or five largest political factions are divided not just by sect but by their vision of Iraq's future. If there is an accord, it will probably come at the cost of empowering leaders who aspire to partition the country through the creation of powerful regional governments -- in effect, ministates.

But even achieving an imperfect federal government may require more pressure on the Iraqi parties than one ambassador can bring to bear. Other countries with Iraq's sectarian miseries, such as Bosnia, Lebanon and Afghanistan, accepted a political deal only after their politicians were sequestered in conference rooms and subjected to enormous pressure from a coalition of interested governments. Mr. Khalilzad hinted at such a conference on Friday -- but who will help him with it? U.S. Middle Eastern allies and the United Nations have made only modest efforts to help broker an Iraqi agreement. Far from trying to mobilize them, senior Bush administration officials have been keeping their distance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently toured the Middle East but didn't make time for a stop in Baghdad.

U.S. military leaders also seem to be doing their best to avoid facing some tough questions. In their eagerness to conclude that a substantial reduction of U.S. forces -- due to be decided on this month -- is justified, they have been issuing ludicrously positive accounts of the situation, such as the declaration last Sunday by Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that developments in Iraq were "going very, very well, from everything you look at."

Congressional Democrats are demanding assurances that the drawdown of troops will go forward regardless of the circumstances in Iraq. There may be outcomes the United States has no interest in defending, such as the creation of a Shiite ministate in southern Iraq. But even in the worst circumstances there will be vital U.S. security interests, such as protecting the pro-Western Kurdish community in northern Iraq and preventing the establishment of bases for al-Qaeda and other terrorist movements. Even if American forces don't take sides, a U.S. presence could limit the scale of the fighting and prevent overt intervention by other outside powers, such as Iran and Syria.

Of course the first, second and third choice would be to head off this terrible scenario -- which is why the Bush administration, in addition to scheduling a new series of speeches for the president in coming weeks, should be working harder to foster an Iraqi political accord.

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