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Meanwhile, Reality In Iraq

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 10, 2006

LONDON -- President Bush has finally heard some realistic, even brutal, ideas about finding a path out of Iraq. But few of them came from the politically interesting but strategically flawed Iraq Study Group's report.

The future of Iraq came calling at the White House three times during an extraordinary 72-hour period last week. History (or perhaps White House chief of staff and visit-scheduler Josh Bolten) was taking no chances: It was announcing clearly to Bush a last chance to salvage some advantage and honor out of this administration's error-riddled occupation of Iraq.

As often occurs when history-warping moments compete for attention, the most important event was the least conspicuous one. A visit to the White House on Monday by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the single most powerful Shiite political leader in Iraq, was quickly eclipsed by the manufactured drama of the release of the policy study headed by Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton on Wednesday.

Their 79 recommendations turned out to be a mixed bag of good intentions (Hamilton's strength) and profound, manipulative cynicism (a Baker talent) that Bush cannot find congenial. By blanketing a withering silence over the concept and term, the report even rejects Bush's contention that Iraq is the central front in the "global war on terrorism."

The value of the report lies not in what it says about Iraq and certainly not in the insincere scheme the group hatched -- without seriously consulting Israel -- to have Israel hand the Golan Heights back to Syria as part of an American-led "New Diplomatic Offensive." Instead, the report's value lies in what it says about, and to, America. It makes pertinent recommendations on reorganizing key activities and relationships of the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress that should be pursued.

But on Iraq, the study group repeats the fundamental error that this administration has made since overthrowing Saddam Hussein. That is to refuse to anticipate and then accept the logical -- in fact, inescapable -- consequences of U.S. actions.

Having empowered the formerly persecuted Shiite majority in Iraq through regime change and democratic elections, Bush repeatedly has found its exercise of power suspect or unacceptable, primarily because of Shiite links to Iran.

And both the commission and Bush shrink from directly acknowledging that the struggle in Iraq is now the center of a much broader civil war -- a civil war within Islam that pits Shiites against Sunnis and moderates against extremists in both sects. American actions are not designed to give one religious group advantage over another. But they inevitably do and inevitably are judged in that light by the Iraqis and their neighbors. Again, the United States seems oblivious to the consequences for others of American choices.

This broader context made Hakim's soft words on Iraq's harsh realities the most important suggestions the president heard last week. As offered by the black-turbaned cleric in a series of public appearances in Washington and as supplemented by his aides, his view goes like this:

U.S. forces and the feeble central government do too little to protect Shiites. We can do that job ourselves if your troops get out of the way. That will clear the way for U.S. withdrawals while leading to the informal division of Iraq into three distinct autonomous regions. That is the only acceptable alternative to a strong central government controlled by the Shiites, which may no longer be in reach.

The Baker-Hamilton study group ruled out partition in any form. But the report trails events on the ground, as Bush is likely to have heard in his third high-level meeting on Iraq when he hosted British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday.

In recent weeks British commanders have reported to London that Hakim's Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, has completed a gradual takeover of Iraq's south. That leaves British forces with little ability to influence events -- or reason to stay on much longer in any large numbers -- the commanders add pointedly.

Nationally, Hakim has watched patiently as his Shiite rivals in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and in Moqtada al-Sadr's organization have been chewed up in the meat grinder of Baghdad's barbaric sectarian conflicts, rampant corruption and U.S. inconsistency.

Hakim gave the impression in Washington of a man riding a wave carrying him inexorably toward where he wants to go. No one could say that about Bush during his crucible week.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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