Change Course in Iraq

Sunday, October 22, 2006

PRESIDENT BUSH said this month that he was willing to "change tactics" in Iraq if U.S strategy was not working. We believe the time has come for such a change. The Iraqi coalition government that Mr. Bush has been counting on to forge political compromises and disarm sectarian militias doesn't seem to have the strength to carry out either mission. A U.S.-led attempt to pacify Baghdad by concentrating forces in the capital has failed, while contributing to a grievous spike in American casualties. Support for the war is rapidly slipping, in the country and in Congress; a congressionally mandated commission is likely to recommend a new course sometime after next month's election. Mr. Bush would be wise to act sooner than that: The rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq needs to be addressed urgently.

The United States cannot afford to abandon Iraq or the government of Nouri al-Maliki, which was elected last January with millions of votes from Iraqis who did not choose civil war, partition or al-Qaeda. But U.S. policy must account for the fact that Mr. Maliki's administration has not been able to stop the acceleration of sectarian warfare, in many cases waged by militias linked to parties in the government. Nor has it taken the bold steps that might pave the way for a political settlement, such as an amnesty for insurgents and concessions by majority Shiites to minority Sunnis on the distribution of oil revenue or limitations on federalism.

A revised U.S. strategy must aim to jump-start political accord and militia disarmament. But it must also provide for the possibility that decisive progress will not be achievable soon. It should position the United States to defend its interests during a protracted conflict, with levels of troops and other resources that will be sustainable. It should reach out to Iraq's neighbors and other governments with an interest in stabilizing the country. This calls for diplomacy far more deft and aggressive than the administration thus far has engaged in.

What could be done to foster a political settlement? The best option that has not yet been tried is a peace conference attended by all the Iraqi parties, as well as Iraq's neighbors, the United Nations and other powers, such as the European Union and the Arab League. Similar conferences brokered the end of civil wars in Lebanon, Bosnia and Congo. The United States and other outside powers cannot impose a solution, but they can press the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to make the deals they know are needed: on oil revenue; on an amnesty for insurgents and former Baathists; on the terms by which Iraq may be divided into federal regions.

The United States, Europe and Arab states could offer incentives for accord such as reconstruction funds linked to progress in implementing constitutional and economic reforms. At the same time, the Bush administration should help to create a contact group of all of Iraq's neighbors to discuss common interests in stabilizing the country and preventing the escalation and spread of civil war. Those common interests do exist, even between the United States and Iran and Syria; dialogue about them is long overdue.

Political progress, or the absence of it, should shape the future deployment of U.S forces. If there are breakthroughs toward Iraqi reconciliation in the coming months, American forces could help to consolidate them.

But if, as appears more likely, Iraq's civil war deepens and spreads, the United States should abandon attempts to pacify Baghdad or other areas with its own forces. It should adopt a strategy of supporting the Iraqi government and army in a long-term effort to win the war. The elements of such a strategy might include substantially upgrading the training, advising and support missions -- which have been woefully undersupported so far. U.S. airpower could back Iraqi troops, and U.S. money and equipment could flow to the Iraqi army, conditioned on government steps to demobilize Shiite militias and respect the constitution. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Iraqi governments should formally agree on a plan for turning the fighting over to Iraqi troops, province by province; Mr. Maliki himself has said he wants that transition to occur by the end of next year. A reserve force of U.S. troops could remain as a guarantor against a military victory by insurgents and as a rapid reaction force that could strike al-Qaeda targets.

A change of course won't necessarily rescue the U.S mission in Iraq. The government, political system and army that Americans and Iraqis have sacrificed so much to create could collapse without the prop of 140,000 U.S. troops or even with it. But there remains a chance the government could gain control over the country. As long as that prospect exists, the United States has a moral obligation and a practical interest to remain in Iraq.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company