Doubts Run Deep on Reforms Crucial to Bush's Iraq Strategy
Even Plan's Authors Say Political, Economic Changes May Fail

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.

They closely examined the makeup of Iraq's 275-seat parliament, where a no-confidence vote requires only a simple majority. Maliki's Dawa party is part of the Hakim-led United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite group, with 130 seats. Making a strong case for SCIRI, some argued that the Iraqis themselves were so fed up with Maliki that a different governing coalition is possible with realigned Sunni and Kurdish elements. This view found proponents in the White House and Pentagon, and it extended into parts of the normally more cautious State Department.

Maliki, whose Dawa party holds 12 seats in the parliament, was seen as unwilling to separate voluntarily from his existing power base -- dominated by the violent and unruly Baghdad-based Jaish al-Mahdi militia, also known as the Mahdi Army, of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. With a new coalition, the Alliance would not need Sadr's 30 seats.

SCIRI's own militia, the Badr Organization, is seen as more cohesive, "an actual organization with command and control" that might be integrated into the Iraqi military, said one State Department official. The administration has charged that both the Sadr and Badr militias receive assistance from Iran. But officials regularly note that Badr forces have not attacked the U.S. military and that SCIRI has voiced equal opposition to Iranian and U.S. domination.

Other officials find that view naive, noting that evidence of Iran's involvement in Iraqi violence was found in a SCIRI compound during a raid last month.

Several officials said they believe that Hakim's backers in the Bush administration have been seduced by his forceful demeanor and Abdul Mahdi's fluent English. And while many emphasized the importance of a single, visible Iraqi leader, others have said it is a mistake to personalize the policy in one Shiite actor.

After extensive discussions last month with Maliki, Hakim and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the most senior Sunni in the Iraqi government, policymakers decided to place their bets on Maliki. "We judge that Maliki does not wish to fail in his role," National Intelligence Council Chairman Thomas Fingar told Congress in a tepid endorsement recently. "He has some, but not all, of the obvious requirements for success."

In any case, replacing Maliki was determined to be "too hard," in the words of one analyst. A two-thirds parliamentary majority is required to install a new prime minister, and any attempt to remove Maliki by parliamentary maneuver, it was agreed, should remain a Plan B that Iraqis themselves would undertake if he failed to produce results.

So far, Maliki has said the right things about cracking down on the sectarian violence -- including by Sadr's militia -- that is tearing Baghdad apart. But there are worrisome signs. A parliamentary session late last month in which Maliki introduced the new plan was adjourned after it erupted in sectarian squabbling in which the prime minister gave as good as he got.

Many experts believe that the administration's effort to build a new political center, supported by "moderate" Sunni allies in the region that fear Shiite Iranian expansion, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, is hopelessly outdated. "Our struggle may be between moderates and extremists," Brookings Institution scholar Martin Indyk said last month. "Their struggle is between Sunnis and Shias."

New Economic Initiatives

On the economic front, where the United States has already invested more than $38 billion, the administration has asked for $538 million to keep current programs running and has proposed an additional $1.2 billion for new initiatives that it says will receive long-term Iraqi funding.

A combination of violent attacks on previous projects, sectarian favors, inefficient and overly cautious officials, and a complex bureaucracy -- much of it installed by the United States under the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority -- has left the Iraqi government with a significant capital surplus in each of the past several years.

Getting approval for reconstruction expenditures in the past, observed one U.S. official, has been like "pushing wet spaghetti." The surplus, which is kept in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, now totals $12.5 billion. Maliki has publicly agreed to spend $10 billion of it on reconstruction and jobs.

The State Department has sent new "tiger teams" to six Iraqi ministries to help clear away the wreckage of the past and speed financing for approved projects, and it plans to double to 20 the number of U.S.-staffed provisional reconstruction teams in Baghdad and around the country.

In addition to Foreign Service officers, experts including small-business advisers and camel veterinarians are being recruited from the U.S. Agriculture Department and elsewhere to staff the teams, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, told Congress last week.

Former Foreign Service officer Timothy M. Carney, who worked in Iraq in 2003, has been appointed to coordinate the U.S. and Iraqi bureaucracies, to get the Iraqi government's money moving and to make sure that Iraqi funding priorities coincide with the administration's.

But some officials worry that the expanded U.S. presence will repeat the mistakes of the past -- when the United States oversaw virtually every part of the Iraqi government -- and undermine the goal of turning the country over to the Iraqis themselves.

"It's the same old problem as in 2003," cautioned one official. "The same impatience that if they can't do it we'll step in and do it. There is a bit of that creeping into this dialogue."

Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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