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Deal on Iraq policy explored

Times Staff Writers

The Bush administration has begun exploring ways of offering Congress a compromise deal on Iraq policy to avert bruising battles in coming months, U.S. officials said.

With public support of the war dropping, President Bush has authorized an internal policy review to find a plan that could satisfy opponents without sacrificing his top goals, the officials said.

The president and senior officials “realize they can’t keep fighting this over and over,” said one administration official, who along with others declined to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly or because decisions were pending.

The Republican White House has not opened formal negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Congress. But some senior administration officials -- including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad -- have been quietly talking with lawmakers about how to adjust policy in the months ahead. Among other ideas, they have discussed whether the United States should advocate a sharply decentralized Iraq, a notion that has seen a resurgence on Capitol Hill.

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Bush was victorious last month in the most recent round of his battle with congressional Democrats over Iraq. He forced them, after weeks of struggle, to accept a $120-billion emergency war spending bill that did not require reductions of U.S. troops in Iraq. But future White House battles with Congress are looming.

Leading congressional Republicans have signaled that they expect a new U.S. course by September, when a key military assessment is due. Democrats, meanwhile, intend to use other legislative measures to push Bush toward a troop withdrawal, beginning as early as this week’s deliberations on a Defense authorization bill.

An accord with Congress could save the White House from refighting the issue every few months. But the odds of a compromise are long.

Bush has said he will not accept any American pullback that would imperil Iraq. Democrats are feeling growing pressure from their antiwar base for troop withdrawals, and could sacrifice a crucial 2008 campaign issue if they agreed to a deal with the White House.

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At the same time, a deal could be tempting to lawmakers who see it as a way out of a war that has damaged Congress’ reputation as well as the president’s. Though Democrats would be reluctant to let Bush off the hook, many “would have a hard time turning down a proposal that offers a real way out,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

White House officials have not indicated how a compromise might look. Administration officials and some Democrats favor shifting U.S. forces to a support role: fighting insurgents, training Iraqi forces and providing other backup.

Many Democrats want such a shift in the next few months, but Bush has said Iraq must become more stable first. In a news conference last month, Bush said he “would like to see us in a different configuration at some point in time.”

Administration officials have signaled that there is a spectrum of views within the government. Some top officials, including Gates, have appeared less enthusiastic about the current “surge” of 30,000 troops.

The troop buildup has increased the U.S. force to about 150,000. In recent weeks, some administration officials have begun considering a partial drawdown that could start as early as the first quarter of next year.

But whatever others in his administration are advocating, Bush has not embraced a drawdown in the absence of greater stability, administration officials emphasized.

The White House has opposed proposals in Congress to partition Iraq, or sharply decentralize its government.

That idea -- what proponents of decentralization call a “federal system of government” -- is favored by an unusually broad bipartisan group of senators. They were pulled together this month by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a presidential candidate, to cosponsor a nonbinding resolution supporting the federalism plan.

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And the administration stance may be easing. On a trip to Iraq about a week ago, Gates openly reflected that greater emphasis outside Baghdad might prove more effective. “Perhaps we have gotten too focused on the central government, and not enough on the provinces and on the tribes and what is happening in those areas,” Gates told reporters.

And U.N. Ambassador Khalilzad, who was the U.S. ambassador to Iraq until April, has discussed the federalism plan with Biden and Biden’s fellow sponsor and presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), lawmakers said.

Khalilzad, in an interview, rejected the idea of imposing decentralization on the Iraqis, saying it could “backfire politically

But Khalilzad said he favored the idea of U.N. officials helping Iraqis decide, in their current deliberations over their constitution, whether to choose a structure that would transfer power to the regions. “If they want to go that route, it’s certainly an option,” he said.

Biden said recently that the federalism plan “offers the possibility -- not the guarantee, but the possibility -- of a soft landing in Iraq.”

“I believe it is the best way to end the war in Iraq in a responsible way,” he said.

The idea is gaining popularity on Capitol Hill.

Joining Biden is Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), one of the strongest proponents of a deadline for withdrawing most U.S. combat troops. Also cosponsoring the measure are three Republicans, including two conservatives not usually seen as Democrats’ allies on the war: Brownback and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

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Although Hutchison has spoken since last year about creating semiautonomous regions in Iraq, she has generally been one of the administration’s most loyal allies on Capitol Hill.

The Biden resolution -- which does not address troop levels -- has not been endorsed by the Senate Democratic leadership, which remains focused on the upcoming troop withdrawal votes.

A number of influential lawmakers also have expressed concerns that a U.S. plan to divide the country could increase sectarian strife and create the impression that the United States is imposing its will on the Iraqis.

“The Iraqis have got to get their act together, work out their political differences. We’ve got to pressure them to do it. But they have to make the decision as to what is the best system for them, what degree of federalism, what those details are,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.). “Whether or not it is workable ... is up to the Iraqis to decide.”

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican seen as key to any bipartisan Iraq legislation, also remains wary. “It’s essentially giving federal approval to ethnic cleansing,” Collins said. “On the other hand, nothing seems to be working.”

The Bush administration officials said they would like to change the terms of the congressional debate, shifting discussion from whether U.S. troops should leave to how the United States can help address the practical problems of holding the country together.

But many in Congress believe any discussions would have to consider all possible approaches.

“At this point, I think every option has to be on the table,” Collins said, “including a significant but gradual withdrawal of our forces.”

paul.richter@latimes.com

noam.levey@latimes.com


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