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Plan B For Iraq: Winning Dirty

By Mort Kondracke

Without prejudging whether President Bush's "surge" policy will work, the administration and its critics ought to be seriously thinking about a Plan B, the "80 percent solution" - also known as "winning dirty." Right now, the administration is committed to building a unified, reconciled, multisectarian Iraq - "winning clean." Most Democrats say that's what they want, too. But it may not be possible.

The 80 percent alternative involves accepting rule by Shiites and Kurds, allowing them to violently suppress Sunni resistance and making sure that Shiites friendly to the United States emerge victorious.

No one has publicly advocated this Plan B, and I know of only one Member of Congress who backs it - and he wants to stay anonymous. But he argues persuasively that it's the best alternative available if Bush's surge fails. Winning will be dirty because it will allow the Shiite-dominated Iraqi military and some Shiite militias to decimate the Sunni insurgency. There likely will be ethnic cleansing, atrocities against civilians and massive refugee flows.
On the other hand, as Bush's critics point out, bloody civil war is the reality in Iraq right now. U.S. troops are standing in the middle of it and so far cannot stop either Shiites from killing Sunnis or Sunnis from killing Shiites.

Winning dirty would involve taking sides in the civil war - backing the Shiite-dominated elected government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and ensuring that he and his allies prevail over both the Sunni insurgency and his Shiite adversary Muqtada al-Sadr, who's now Iran's candidate to rule Iraq.

Shiites make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population, so Shiite domination of the government is inevitable and a democratic outcome. The United States also has good relations with Iraq's Kurdish minority, 20 percent of the population, and would want to cement it by semipermanently stationing U.S. troops in Northern Iraq to ward off the possibility of a Turkish invasion.

Ever since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Sunnis - representing 20 percent of the population - have been the core of armed resistance to the U.S. and the Iraqi government. The insurgency consists mainly of ex-Saddam supporters and Sunni nationalists, both eager to return to power, and of jihadists anxious to sow chaos, humiliate the United States and create a safe zone for al-Qaida operations throughout the Middle East.

Bush wants to establish Iraq as a model representative democracy for the Middle East, but that's proved impossible so far - partly because of the Sunni insurgencies, partly because of Shiites' reluctance to compromise with their former oppressors and partly because al-Qaida succeeded in triggering a civil war.

Bush's troop surge - along with Gen. David Petraeus' shift of military strategy - is designed to suppress the civil war long enough for Iraqi military forces to be able to maintain even handed order on their own and for Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite politicians to agree to share power and resources. The new strategy deserves a chance, but so far civilian casualties are not down, progress on political reconciliation is glacial, and U.S. casualties have increased significantly.

As a result, political patience in the United States is running down. If Petraeus cannot show dramatic progress by September, Republicans worried about re-election are likely to demand a U.S. withdrawal, joining Democrats who have demanded it for years.

Prudence calls for preparation of a Plan B. The withdrawal policy advocated by most Democrats virtually guarantees catastrophic ethnic cleansing - but without any guarantee that a government friendly to the United States would emerge. Almost certainly, Shiites will dominate Iraq because they outnumber Sunnis three to one. But the United States would get no credit for helping the Shiites win. In fact, America's credibility would suffer because it abandoned its mission. And, there is no guarantee that al-Sadr - currently residing in Iran and resting his militias - would not emerge as the victor in a power struggle with al-Maliki's Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.

Iran formerly backed the SCIRI and its Badr Brigades but recently switched allegiances - foolishly, my Congressional source contends - to al-Sadr, who's regarded by other Shiites as young, volatile and unreliable. Under a win dirty strategy, the United States would have to back al-Maliki and the Badr Brigades in their eventual showdown with al-Sadr. It also would have to help Jordan and Saudi Arabia care for a surge in Sunni refugees, possibly 1 million to 2 million joining an equal number who already have fled.

Sunnis will suffer under a winning dirty strategy, no question, but so far they've refused to accept that they're a minority. They will have to do so eventually, one way or another. And, eventually, Iraq will achieve political equilibrium. Civil wars do end. The losers lose and have to knuckle under. As my Congressional source says, "every civil war is a political struggle. The center of this struggle is for control of the Shiite community. Wherever the Shiites go, is where Iraq will go. So, the quicker we back the winning side, the quicker the war ends. ... Winning dirty isn't attractive, but it sure beats losing."

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill since 1955. © 2007 Roll Call, Inc.

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