By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006
The Bush administration is deliberating whether to abandon U.S. reconciliation efforts with Sunni insurgents and instead give priority to Shiites and Kurds, who won elections and now dominate the government, according to U.S. officials.
The proposal, put forward by the State Department as part of a crash White House review of Iraq policy, follows an assessment that the ambitious U.S. outreach to Sunni dissidents has failed. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that their reconciliation efforts may even have backfired, alienating the Shiite majority and leaving the United States vulnerable to having no allies in Iraq, according to sources familiar with the State Department proposal.
Some insiders call the proposal the "80 percent" solution, a term that makes other parties to the White House policy review cringe. Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.
Until now, the thrust of U.S. policy has been to build a unified government and society out of Iraq's three fractious communities. U.S. officials say they would not be abandoning this goal but would instead leave leadership of the thorny task of reconciliation to the Iraqis. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations.
The proposal has met serious resistance from both U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and military commanders in Iraq, who believe that intensive diplomatic efforts to bring Sunni insurgents into the political process are pivotal to stabilizing the war-ravaged country, the sources said.
Khalilzad, who has spearheaded U.S. outreach to the Sunni leadership, has developed a long list of steps to accommodate Sunni concerns, from a possible amnesty to changes in the hydrocarbon law that distributes oil wealth, which is located mainly in Shiite and Kurdish regions. Critics argue that he might be able to broker an agreement, but they question whether it would hold, according to sources close to the discussions.
Opponents of the proposal cite three dangers. Without reconciliation, military commanders fear that U.S. troops would be fighting the symptoms of Sunni insurgency without any prospect of getting at the causes behind it -- notably the marginalization of the once-powerful minority. U.S. troops would be left fighting in a political vacuum, not a formula for either long-term stabilization or reducing attacks on American targets.
A second danger is that the United States could appear to be taking sides in the escalating sectarian strife. The proposal would encourage Iraqis to continue reconciliation efforts. But without U.S. urging, outreach could easily stall or even atrophy, deepening sectarian tensions, U.S. sources say.
A decision to step back from reconciliation efforts would also be highly controversial among America's closest allies in the region, which are all Sunni governments. Sunni leaders in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms have been pressuring the United States to ensure that their brethren are included in Iraq's power structure and economy.
But over 10 days of intense discussions recently among top policymakers in the White House review, State Department officials argued that intervening in Iraqi politics is increasingly counterproductive, particularly after elections for a permanent government last December. Reconciliation, they also argued, is now exceptionally unlikely and could actually jeopardize U.S. relations with Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population, according to sources familiar with the debate.
State Department counselor Philip D. Zelikow, author of the proposal, argued that the United States has compromised its prospects of success by reaching too far, according to the sources.
The State Department proposal, which was introduced at the second of 10 meetings and has dominated debate ever since, suggests that the United States would keep at arm's length diplomatic efforts to bridge the deep divide in Iraq between the two branches of Islam, the sources said.
State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined to comment on the proposal.
Another point of debate in the policy review is how far to broaden a new U.S. strategy to bring in regional players to help stabilize Iraq. The White House and the State Department are still wedded to the isolation of Iran and Syria, despite the growing momentum behind the idea of regional outreach, according to sources familiar with the discussions. The idea has also been part of the discussions of the Iraq Study Group.
The policy review team briefed President Bush on Sunday evening with a 15-page slide presentation of its incomplete findings. Although differences have not yet been sorted out, the presentation coalesced heavily around a tilt to the Shiites, sources said. The White House review was then put on hold for Bush's summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The administration had initially hoped to pull together its review about the time the Iraq Study Group released its report, but en route home from the Bush-Maliki summit in Jordan, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said changes to U.S. strategy may still be weeks away.
"There is a real sense of urgency, but there is not a sense of panic," Hadley told reporters on board Air Force One. "I think probably it's going to be weeks rather than months. It's going to be when the president is comfortable."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Jordan yesterday that Bush plans to receive the report of the Iraq Study Group on Wednesday, then hear more from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his own policy review team. "Then I think he'll set out a direction that adjusts our policy to be appropriate to the circumstances that the Iraqis now face," Rice told reporters traveling with her.