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In Iraq, a philosophical retreat for U.S. military

Times Staff Writer

For President Bush, creating a peaceful democracy remains the overarching U.S. goal in Iraq. Last week, he again described his vision for a “stable democracy” that can “promote our common interests in the Middle East.”

But in two days of exhaustive testimony before the House and Senate, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said conspicuously little about democracy in that nation.

That’s because, without saying so publicly, U.S. war planners have moved further from those idealistic goals.

They are now pursuing a strategy aimed at a more modest outcome, one that emphasizes keeping the peace over democratic reforms.

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In fact, as military officials acknowledge, some of the newer tactics may make democracy more unlikely than ever.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has always championed Bush’s Iraq strategy and has never clashed publicly with the president. But the last week made clear the growing divergence between political rhetoric and the reality of the war.

When it comes to defining victory, Petraeus told lawmakers last week, he and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker consider themselves minimalists.

“We’re not after the Holy Grail on Iraq,” Petraeus said. “We’re not after Jeffersonian democracy.”

Meeting with reporters two days later, Petraeus said that it was important to foster democratic practices but that U.S. aspirations had been “tempered by experience.”

“There’s not a desire for what people might see as perfection,” Petraeus said. “Adequate is good enough, if you will.”

Over the last 15 months, a shift to more modest expectations has been built into U.S. military operations and planning in Iraq, current and former officers said.

“We are more focused on security and stability than we are on other lofty democratic goals,” said a senior officer who has served in Iraq but who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing military planning. “The longer we are there, the more pragmatic we become.”

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As last year’s troop buildup was being planned, the Joint Chiefs of Staff began pushing for a more pragmatic -- and modest -- approach that de-emphasized democracy, according to military officers.

A Joint Campaign Plan for Iraq developed by Petraeus and Crocker also adopted a more realistic approach. That document, setting out U.S. military and diplomatic strategies, emphasizes security over good government, said John R. Martin, a retired colonel who worked on it.

“I hate to say it was pushed off, because democracy is such an important thing. But, in effect, that was what happened,” Martin said. “We said we have got to get security first, and then some of the political progress can occur. So in that sense, it was pushed to a lower priority.”

The troop buildup has been credited with reducing violence across Iraq. But many current and former military officers said that even more important were a series of decisions to reach cease-fire agreements with former insurgents, allow them to organize into armed groups, and put them on the U.S. payroll.

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U.S. support for these “concerned local citizens” or “Sons of Iraq,” armed groups headed by tribal sheiks, has dramatically reduced violence. But it also has empowered the sheiks at the expense of local government authority.

And the existence of newly armed groups that are not under the control of Iraq’s central government has done little to enhance the power of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

“The Iraqi security forces do not have a monopoly on violence; it’s been outsourced to these groups,” said the military officer who has served in Iraq. “It’s not Maliki’s government controlling security.”

Martin said the Iraq command had worked hard to ensure that the Sons of Iraq did not undermine the Maliki government.

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“We tried very hard to reinforce the government’s monopoly on force,” Martin said. “It was not an attempt to establish militias.”

But Martin acknowledged that the Maliki government had resisted U.S. requests that it bring the Sons of Iraq groups into the Iraq security force.

The Shiite government is reluctant to share power with the Sunni minority, which dominated Saddam Hussein’s regime.

That reluctance has been the largest stumbling block to meaningful democratic reforms.

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Besides the difficulty of trying to strengthen democratic institutions, reforms could actually threaten security gains.

Stephen D. Biddle, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised the U.S. command in Iraq, said there could be a “real tension” between the competing goals of forging cease-fires with local militants and supporting the democratically elected central government.

Biddle reasoned that an emphasis on democracy could lead the U.S. to support Maliki in his attempts to dismantle the militias of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

But such a move by the central government, Biddle said, would unravel local cease-fire agreements with other militia groups that have tamped down violence.

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“If that’s what democracy requires,” Biddle said, “we might be better off settling for stability with less democracy, rather than risking chaos in pursuit of the ideal in Iraq.”

Mark Moyar, a military historian and professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College in Quantico, Va., said many officers who served in Iraq had come to realize that Iraqi history and culture made it difficult to impose a Western-style democracy.

“There is a recognition: If there is to be political change, it is going to be gradual, and we really have to get the security down first,” Moyar said.

“There is a recognition that we did not understand the extent to which their culture made it difficult to move from an authoritarian government to liberal democracy.”

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.

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