Doubts Run Deep on Reforms Crucial to Bush's Iraq Strategy

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

The success of the Bush administration's new Iraq strategy depends on a series of rapid and dramatic political and economic reforms that even the plan's authors have little confidence will work.

In the current go-for-broke atmosphere, administration officials say they are aware that failure to achieve the reforms would result in a repeat of last year's unsuccessful Baghdad offensive, when efforts to consolidate military gains with lasting stability on the ground did not work. This time, they acknowledge, there will be no second chance.

Among many deep uncertainties are whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is up to the task and committed to spearheading what the administration foresees as a fundamental realignment of Iraqi politics; whether Maliki's Shiite-dominated government and its sluggish financial bureaucracy will part with $10 billion for rapid job creation and reconstruction, at least some of it directed to sectarian opponents; and whether the U.S. military and State Department can calibrate their own stepped-up reconstruction assistance to push for action without once again taking over.

A pessimistic new National Intelligence Estimate released Friday described the Iraqi government as "hard-pressed" to achieve sectarian reconciliation, even in the unlikely event that violence diminishes. Without directly mentioning Maliki, it noted that "the absence of unifying leaders among the Arab Sunni or Shia with the capacity to speak for or exert control over their confessional groups limits prospects."

Several senior officials involved in formulating the political and economic aspects of the administration's strategy, along with a number of informed outsiders, agreed to discuss its assumptions and risks on the condition that they not be identified by name. Other sources refused to be even anonymously quoted, describing the administration as standing on the brink of an intricate combination of maneuvers whose outcome is far from assured.

The foundation of the strategy is not new -- U.S. policy since the March 2003 invasion has been to use American military might, money and know-how to foster a peaceful Iraq with a unified government and a solid economy. The strategy incorporates major elements of last year's "clear, hold and build" plan, whose "hold and build" parts never got off the ground.

Several sources expressed concern that the administration, by publicly rejecting a "containment" option -- withdrawing U.S. troops to Iraqi borders to avoid sectarian fighting while preventing outside arms and personnel from entering the country -- has not left itself a fall-back plan in the event of failure.

Shift in Political Climate

The strategy's political component centers on replacing deepening Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish divides with a new delineation between "extremists" and "moderates." Moderates are defined as those of all religious and political persuasions who eschew violence in favor of safety and employment.

With the help of outside Iraq experts, the administration has compiled lists of active and still-untapped moderates around the country. "They wondered could I give them some [names] from the provinces or anywhere" from which to construct a new political base, recalled one think-tank expert called to the State Department in December. According to the intelligence estimate, however, Iraq's reservoir of such people, especially trained technocrats and entrepreneurs, has been drained as they have fled the country in droves.

As American and Iraqi combat forces focus on cooling the cauldron of violence in Baghdad, U.S. military commanders and State Department teams plan to funnel "bridge money" toward moderate designees in outer provinces and in the capital to create jobs, start businesses and revitalize moribund factories. Iraqi money would come in behind to make it all permanent.

Iraqis with physical and economic security, the thinking goes, will give their political support to the government that produces both. Closing the circle, the Iraqi government will see non-sectarian moderates as the central support for a new political coalition.

As they put the plan together, officials held heated internal debates over whether Maliki was the right man to head such an effort. Some argued in favor of engineering a new Iraqi government under Maliki's Shiite coalition partner, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and Hakim's political stalking horse, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi.

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