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Many options in Iraq, none easy

Times Staff Writer

The debate over U.S. options in Iraq has intensified since the midterm election, but as officials await the recommendations of a high-profile study group, few good policy choices have emerged and the outlook on the war has grown increasingly pessimistic.

A change of course could become a turning point for the U.S. mission, and the six most-discussed options reflect varying degrees of gloom. The Bush administration advocates a relatively optimistic plan, calling for small-scale adjustments to the U.S. approach, or temporary troop increases, in hopes of stabilizing the country and giving its frail government a chance to take hold.

But pessimists contend that the United States must develop an end point for its mission. They say U.S. and Iraqi leaders need to consider dividing the country, shifting more of the burden of stewardship to its neighbors, or even replacing its Western-style government with a “strongman.”

President Bush continues to publicly rule out some choices, such as troop withdrawals or initiating talks with countries such as Syria.

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But behind the scenes, his top civilian and military officials are furiously rethinking all the options -- including some that already have been tried and rejected.

But all concede, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last week, that “there is no magic bullet.”

The options

Stay the course, with tactical adjustments

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Advocates: President Bush, top U.S. military leaders.

The administration’s current approach is to continue efforts to suppress violence while pressuring the Iraqi government to reach political agreements, control the militias and strengthen security forces.

In the latest tactical shift, military leaders are planning to sharply increase the number of U.S. advisors working with Iraqi security forces. They hope American forces can be drawn down as Iraqi units take control of all regions of the country, which they say can happen within 18 months.

Pros: The approach could limit violence to give Iraqi leaders a chance to reach a power-sharing deal that offers one of the best long-term hopes for peace. It also could strengthen the Iraqi army, one of the country’s less-sectarian institutions. American military leaders hope that the shift to an advisory role would allow them to eventually cut the force in Iraq to a level they could sustain and Americans might tolerate -- perhaps 50,000 to 70,000 troops. There now are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Cons: The current strategy has produced poor results. The government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is further from a power-sharing deal today than when it took office in May. The Shiite-led government has less control of Shiite militias, and has often been unable to field promised Iraqi units. The U.S. military has already fallen behind schedule in its effort to shift to an advisory role, in part because of the inability of Iraqi forces to take on combat roles. It is unclear that shifting to advisors -- a strategy that failed to bring victory in the Vietnam War -- will work. And Iraqis want a change. Mahmoud Othman, a moderate Kurdish legislator, says staying the course is the worst option, because it would mean “what you are seeing every day -- all these people killed, bloodied and kidnapped.”

Temporary increase in U.S. troop level

Advocates: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni; some neoconservatives.

The Pentagon could temporarily boost the current troop level by substantial numbers -- in the tens of thousands -- to try to suppress violence in key areas, such as Baghdad and Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province.

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Pros: Supporters contend that U.S. forces have been spread too thinly to suppress violence, and that a larger force, by establishing order, could open the way to reconstruction, economic improvement and a power-sharing deal. The idea of a temporary spike in U.S. forces, to give the current strategy one last try, was well received by the Iraq Study Group, the congressionally chartered panel, in the early stages of its deliberations.

Cons: It would further strain the U.S. military, yet could prove insufficient to provide security in much of the country. The top U.S. military commander in the Mideast, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, said last week that the Pentagon could provide 20,000 additional troops, but only temporarily, by extending deployments and other steps. And he said that this would reduce pressure on the Iraqis to take charge of their own security. In addition, critics say, it could harm the Pentagon’s ability to handle other emergencies, decrease reenlistment rates and deepen American public discontent over the war. The government of Iraq and its people are cool to the idea of more troops. The foreign forces “are what incite the problems,” said Ali Adib, a lawmaker with Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.

Gradual withdrawal

Advocates: Many Democratic leaders.

An immediate withdrawal is not on the table. The Bush administration could begin a gradual drawdown of troops over several years, possibly coupled with a redeployment that would move U.S. forces into a support position. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the administration should begin a drawdown in four to six months. He argues that U.S. forces should shift to more limited missions, such as training Iraqi forces and fighting foreign insurgents. Iraqis say they want a withdrawal over several years, but each major group wants a pullout structured to protect its interests.

Pros: By notifying Iraqis that a withdrawal will begin soon, the United States may be able to pressure the government to assume responsibility for security. It also could provide an incentive for the rival factions to finally reach a political deal, advocates say. They argue that there is little downside to a pullback, because U.S. troops as currently deployed have been ineffective. “The fragmentation is going on regardless of our presence there,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). Proponents say the U.S. forces still would be able to go after terrorists in the country.

Cons: Violence could intensify as U.S. forces pull back, jeopardizing the government, tempting the governments of neighboring countries to intervene to help the faction they support and emboldening foreign insurgents. The threat of an American pullback wouldn’t produce Iraqi action, critics argue, because the Maliki government is too weak and divided. It could be taken as a signal of impending U.S. departure, and cause factions to deepen the civil war. American disengagement would mark a setback to U.S. prestige and influence in the region, critics say, and would alarm regional allies while strengthening Islamic militants and U.S. rivals such as Iran.

Partition or decentralization

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Advocates: Some Kurds and former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith favor partition; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) favors decentralization.

This option has a variety of applications: Iraq could be formally divided into Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni states, or the three regions could be given wide autonomy around a weak central government that would retain some responsibilities for foreign policy, defense and trade. The Iraqi Constitution provides the foundation for greater regional autonomy.

Pros: The country already is moving toward such a separation, and division could reduce violence, as it did in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Cons: About 40% of the population still lives in mixed areas, such as Baghdad, and deciding which territory goes to which group could intensify violence and force the displacement of thousands of people. A formal division would face strong opposition from neighboring states, another reason the White House calls the idea of partition a “nonstarter.” The Bush administration is more ready to accept a shift toward greater regional autonomy under a central government. But even the idea of autonomous “super-regions” faces strong resistance from many Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, who fear they would get less than they deserve.

Enlist neighbors

Advocates: Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group; Defense Secretary- designate Robert M. Gates; British Prime Minister Tony Blair; various U.S. lawmakers and foreign policy experts.

The Bush administration could launch a new diplomatic initiative, or a regional conference, to enlist the help of neighboring states. A particular goal would be to win support from Iran and Syria, with which the administration has had limited contacts. Although administration hawks oppose engagement with Iran and Syria, David Satterfield, Rice’s Iraq coordinator, said last week that the administration was prepared “in principle” to hold talks with Iran about Iraq.

Pros: Iran has enormous influence over Shiite southern Iraq, and Syria over the Sunni regions and foreign insurgents. No neighbors stand to win if civil war engulfs Iraq, so they have reason to help out. Even partial cooperation could be an important step forward.

Cons: Iran and Syria probably wouldn’t want to help the U.S., whose mission in Iraq has limited the energy it can put into its feuds with them. Administration officials say they have already approached the two countries on some issues, and have come away with little to show for it. The countries also could ask a high price for cooperation: Tehran could demand that the United States reduce the pressure on its nuclear program; Syria might want permission to retake a more active role in Lebanon. “If you bring them in as a major stakeholder, you’re in a position of weakness,” said Michael J. Williams of the Royal United Services Institute in London. And many Iraqis are skeptical of this idea, fearing it would invite meddling by the neighbors they dislike. Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a Sunni lawmaker, said the option would mean giving “wide authority to Iran or Syria to interfere in Iraq.”

A ‘strongman’

Advocates: Some Iraqis, some neighboring governments.

Facing the continuing failure of the elected government, many Iraqis are showing more interest in turning to a more traditional Middle Eastern arrangement: an authoritarian leader. Some Iraqis say this could come through an agreement of the members of Iraq’s National Security Council, which includes representatives of all the major groups. Others say the United States could just give the Shiite majority greater leeway -- as it has been demanding -- to impose order.

Although the Bush administration is talking more about the need for stability and less about Iraqi democracy, it is unlikely to ever publicly endorse a shift to a nondemocratic form of government. But it could be forced to decide how hard it wants to resist if the Iraqis begin moving in this direction.

Pros: A less democratic government might be preferable to catastrophe, Iraqis say. Tawfik Zeki, a Shiite water tanker driver, said that “the only language we Iraqis understand is the language of power and an iron fist.” The idea is gaining currency among some intellectuals, such as University of Baghdad political science professor Nabil Salim. “It is very difficult to talk about democracy while people are starving, they have no work, they have no security,” he said.

Cons: Iraq could jettison its elected government for an authoritarian one and still not have peace. There is no obvious leader who could command widespread support, and power in Iraq is so atomized that the country could get a strongman without a sufficient army. For the Bush administration, the ascent of an authoritarian government would be a difficult blow. It would strip away another of its justifications for the 2003 invasion and would be a further setback for its campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington, Kim Murphy in London and Alexandra Zavis, Raheem Salman and Said Rifai in Baghdad, and special correspondents in Kirkuk and Najaf contributed to this report.


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