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Administration Shaving Yardstick for Iraq Gains

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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