Iraq Strategy Review Focusing on Three Main Options

By Robin Wright and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 9, 2006

As pressure mounts for a change of course in Iraq, the Bush administration is groping for a viable new strategy for the president to unveil by Christmas, with deliberations now focused on three main options to redefine the U.S. military and political engagement, according to officials familiar with the debate.

The major alternatives include a short-term surge of 15,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. Another strategy would redirect the U.S. military away from the internal strife to focus mainly on hunting terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. And the third would concentrate political attention on supporting the majority Shiites and abandon U.S. efforts to reach out to Sunni insurgents.

As President Bush and his advisers rush to complete their crash review and craft a new formula in the next two weeks, some close to the process said the major goal seems to be to stake out alternatives to the plan presented this week by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The White House denied trying to brush off the study group's report and said those recommendations are being considered alongside internal reviews.

But the growing undercurrent of discussions within the administration is shifting responsibility for Iraq's problems to Iraqis. Sources familiar with the deliberations describe fatigue, frustration and a growing desire to disengage from Iraq. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the deliberations.

"None of us see the situation in Iraq as favorable. We all see it as extremely difficult," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

Bush will devote most of next week to his Iraq review. He plans to visit the State Department on Monday to consult with his foreign policy team, then he will host independent Iraq experts in the Oval Office. The next day, he will hold a videoconference with U.S. military commanders and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Iraq. He will travel to the Pentagon for more consultations on Wednesday.

The crash White House review -- which involves the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon -- is tentatively expected to lead to a speech to the nation the week of Dec. 18, officials say.

While one of the options involves a surge of U.S. troops, there is no agreement on what the mission of those forces would be, sources say. Discussions center on accelerating the training of Iraqi forces and helping secure Baghdad before turning it over to the Iraqis. The goal generally could be to improve Iraq's defense capabilities so U.S. combat troops could begin to withdraw faster.

The second idea is the "al-Qaeda option," which would transform the U.S. mission to focus on fighting terrorism and would disengage forces from domestic aspects of the multisided conflict. U.S. troops would take a backseat on the Shiite-Sunni conflict and instead hunt down al-Qaeda operatives, the sources say.

On the ground, for example, that could mean a shift away from operations in Baghdad's volatile Sadr City slum, or from efforts to stop car bombs and sectarian attacks. The administration is increasingly resigned to the fact that it can neither prevent nor intervene in Iraq's sectarian war, which has begun to supersede both the Sunni insurgency and al-Qaeda's operations, the sources say.

The two military options are not necessarily linked. Some in the interagency discussions favor both, while others support the al-Qaeda option but not a military surge, the sources say.

On the political front, the administration is focusing increasingly on variations of a "Shiite tilt," sometimes called an "80 percent solution," that would bolster the political center of Iraq and effectively leave in charge the Shiite and Kurdish parties that account for 80 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and that won elections a year ago.

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