For U.S., The Goal Is Now 'Iraqi Solutions'

By Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 10, 2008

In the year since President Bush announced he was changing course in Iraq with a troop "surge" and a new strategy, U.S. military and diplomatic officials have begun their own quiet policy shift. After countless unsuccessful efforts to push Iraqis toward various political, economic and security goals, they have decided to let the Iraqis figure some things out themselves.

From Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to Army privates and aid workers, officials are expressing their willingness to stand back and help Iraqis develop their own answers. "We try to come up with Iraqi solutions for Iraqi problems," said Stephen Fakan, the leader of a provincial reconstruction team with U.S. troops in Fallujah.

In many cases -- particularly on the political front -- Iraqi solutions bear little resemblance to the ambitious goals for 2007 that Bush laid out in his speech to the nation last Jan. 10. "To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis," he pledged. "Iraqis plan to hold provincial elections later this year . . . the government will reform de-Baathification laws, and establish a fair process for considering amendments to Iraq's constitution."

Although some progress has been made and legislation in some cases has begun to slowly work its way through the parliament, none of these benchmarks has been achieved. Nor has the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki taken over security responsibility for all 18 provinces, as Bush forecast it would. Last month's transfer of Basra province by British forces brought to nine the number of provinces under Iraqi control.

In explaining the situation, U.S. officials have made a virtue of necessity and have praised Iraqi ingenuity for finding different routes toward the same goals. Iraqis have figured out a way to distribute oil revenue without laws to regulate it, Crocker has often noted, and former Baathists are getting jobs. Local and provincial governing bodies -- some elected, some not -- are up and running.

The Iraqis "are at the point where they are able to fashion their own approaches and desired outcomes," Crocker said in an interview, "and we, I think, in part recognizing that and in part reflecting on where we have been over the last almost five years, are increasingly prepared to say it's got to be done in Iraqi terms."

The U.S. military has praised the Maliki government for acknowledging it is not ready to handle security in much of Iraq, and at the same time has dismissed the ongoing violence in Basra and much of the rest of the south as an Iraqi problem. "There are innumerable challenges in the security situation in Basra," Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said late last year, "but there are Iraqi solutions emerging to some of these."

For some observers, the approach indicates a new realism in Washington, a recognition that long years of grandiose plans drawn from U.S. templates have not worked in Iraq. But others charge that the phrase "Iraqi solutions" implies a cynical U.S. willingness to turn a blind eye to sectarianism, political violence and a wealth of papered-over problems -- if that is the price of getting the United States out of Iraq.

"The new phrasing is both the dawning of reality, and the cynical use of language and common sense to camouflage past errors, hoping to avoid the audit of flawed logic that got us to this point," said a retired British general familiar with the U.S. experience in Iraq, and who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his current position.

U.S. officials at various levels are pushing the idea for different reasons, said Sarah Sewall, director of Harvard University's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a Clinton-era Pentagon official. While Petraeus has embraced the notion out of "realism," Sewall said, she thinks the Bush administration "has recently arrived at this formula out of desperation -- due to the failure of its past efforts."

The U.S. occupation authority initially envisioned a free-market paradise for Iraq, with flat taxes and a state-of-the-art stock exchange. Its successors lowered their expectations, seeking a Westernized, relatively corruption-free system, gently trying to wrest the economy away from state ownership. But with little progress, U.S. officials in Baghdad now are simply looking for something that works, frequently spotlighting the Iraqi government's top economic milestone -- passing a national budget and spending some of the appropriated funds.

On the military front, reliance on Iraqi solutions brought an unanticipated success. During the March 2003 invasion, the U.S. military neglected Anbar province, in western Iraq. Later, top commanders decided that a few raids would subdue the growing Sunni insurgency there. Only after Anbar became the center of operations for the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq did U.S. combat forces move to claim the province, engaging in heavy fighting in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

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