Correction to This Article
The print edition of this article incorrectly referred to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as president. This version has been corrected.
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Administration Shaving Yardstick for Iraq Gains

"That is a problem," the official said. "These are congressionally mandated benchmarks now." They require Bush to certify movement in areas ranging from the passage of specific legislation by the Iraqi parliament to the numbers of Iraqi military units able to operate independently. If he cannot make a convincing case, the legislation requires the president to explain how he will change his strategy.

Top administration officials are aware that the strategy's stated goal -- using U.S. forces to create breathing space for Iraqi political reconciliation -- will not be met by September, said one person fresh from a White House meeting. But though some, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have indicated flexibility toward other options, including early troop redeployments, Bush has made no decisions on a possible new course.

"The heart of darkness is the president," the person said. "Nobody knows what he thinks, even the people who work for him."

Mixed Security Results

Military commanders say that their offensive is improving security in Baghdad. "Everything takes time, and everything takes longer than you think it's going to take," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which is fighting south of Baghdad, said Friday. He added: "There is indeed room for optimism. I see progress, but there needs to be more."

Yet the month of May, which came before the Phantom Thunder offensive began, was the most violent in Iraq since November 2004, when U.S. and Iraqi forces fought a fierce battle to retake Fallujah. That intensity promises to continue through the summer. "I see these aggressive offensive operations . . . taking us through July, August and into September," Lynch said.

Not even the most optimistic commanders contend that the offensive is allowing for political reconciliation. At best, Petraeus is likely to report in September, security will have improved in the capital, perhaps returning to the level of 2005, when the city was violent but not racked by low-level civil war.

More significant is whether that slight improvement in security can be built upon. Regardless of what decisions are made in Washington and Baghdad, the U.S. military cannot sustain the current force levels beyond March 2008 because of force rotations. Long-term holding of cleared areas will fall to Iraqi soldiers and police officers.

Because of corruption and mixed loyalties, a Pentagon official said about the Iraqi police, "half of them are part of the problem, not the solution." The portrait officials paint of the Iraqi military is somewhat brighter. "These guys have now been through some pretty hard combat," said a senior administration official. "They're in the fight, not running from it.

"But can they do it without us there? Almost certainly not," the official said.

Even if U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies are able to hold Baghdad and the surrounding provinces, noted the intelligence official, there is a good chance that security will deteriorate elsewhere because there are not enough U.S. troops to spread around. As U.S. troop numbers decrease, he said, it is possible that by sometime next year "we control the middle, the Kurds control the north, and the Iranians control the south."

A Hurdle to Progress

Last month, Iraq's largest Sunni political grouping announced that its four cabinet ministers were boycotting the government and that it was withdrawing its 44 members from parliament. The immediate cause was the arrest of a Sunni minister on murder charges and a vote by the Shiite-dominated legislature to fire the Sunni Arab speaker.

The withdrawal poses a serious problem for short-term U.S. goals. A new law to distribute oil revenue among Iraq's sectarian groups -- seen by U.S. officials as the best hope for a legislative achievement before September -- reached parliament last week after months of delay. Although the Shiite and Kurdish blocs could pass it, the absence of the Sunnis would make any victory meaningless.

U.S. officials despair of any timely progress on the oil law. "I suppose they'll pass it when they damn well want to," one official said.

Plans to hold provincial elections, envisioned to provide more power to Sunnis who boycotted a 2005 vote, have grown more complicated. As Anbar tribal chieftains have emerged to help fight al-Qaeda, they have also demanded more political power from traditional Sunni leaders. In southern Shiite areas, Maliki's Dawa organization continues to vie with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest bloc in the Shiite alliance that dominates Iraq's parliament, while both fear the rising power of forces controlled by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"In mixed areas such as Baghdad," a U.S. official said, "the Sunnis are worried that the Shiites will just clean up again even if [Sunnis] participate this time, because so many Sunnis" have fled sectarian violence in the capital.

Late last year, amid strong doubts about Maliki's leadership capabilities, senior White House officials considered trying to engineer the Iraqi president's replacement. But most have now concluded that there are no viable alternatives and that any attempt to force a change would only worsen matters.

Instead, U.S. officials in Baghdad are engaged in a complicated hand-holding exercise with Iraqi leaders, and are striving for small gains rather than major advancement. The main example of success they cite is agreement reached by the top Shiite, Sunni and Kurd officials in the government to appeal for calm after last month's bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra.

Officials are encouraged by the growing numbers of local Sunni officials and tribal leaders in Anbar striving to wrest political and security control from al Qaeda in Iraq. Bush has also highlighted the importance of such local efforts. "This is where political reconciliation matters most," he said in a speech last month, "because it is where ordinary Iraqis are deciding whether to support new Iraq."

But officials caution that this transformation is no substitute for a national Iraqi identity, with unified leadership in Baghdad. Maliki's Shiite-dominated government must continue to reach out to Anbar "and give these emerging tribal forces status, adopting them," a U.S. official said.

"Trying to do the local initiative stuff and having that be the whole story does not advance the process," he said.

Warnings on Withdrawal

Facing increased public disapproval and eroding Republican support, Bush has stepped up his warnings that a sudden U.S. withdrawal would allow al-Qaeda or Iran -- or both -- to take over Iraq. What is more likely, several officials said, is a deeper split between competing Shiite groups supported in varying degrees by Iran, and greater involvement by neighboring Arab states in Sunni areas battling al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Kurdish region, officials said, would become further estranged from the rest of Iraq, and its tensions with Turkey would increase.

"I can't say that al-Qaeda is going to take over, or that Iran is going to take over," an official said. "I don't think either are true. But I do think that a lot of very, very bad things would happen." If the administration decided to have troops retreat to bases inside Iraq and not intervene in sectarian warfare, he said, the U.S. military could find itself in a position that "would make the Dutch at Srebrenica look like heroes."

For its part, the military has calculated that a veto-proof congressional majority is unlikely to demand a full, immediate withdrawal. But however long the troops remain, and in whatever number, the military intelligence official said, they see a clear mission ahead. "We're going to get it as stable as we can, with the troops we have, and in the time available. And then, we'll back out as carefully as we can," the official said.

Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.

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