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Preparing For The Post Surge

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his senior military and foreign-policy advisers are beginning to discuss a "post-surge" strategy for Iraq which they hope could gain bipartisan political support. The new policy would focus on training and advising Iraqi troops rather than the broader goal of achieving a political reconciliation in Iraq, which senior officials recognize may be unachievable within the time available.

The revamped policy, as outlined by a top administration official, would be premised on the idea that, as the current surge of U.S. troops succeeds in reducing sectarian violence, America's role will be increasingly to help prepare the Iraqi military to take greater responsibility for securing the country.

"Sectarian violence is not a problem we can fix," said one senior official. "The Iraqi government needs to show that it can take control of the capital." U.S. officials offer a somber evaluation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: His Shiite-dominated government is weak and sectarian, but they have concluded that, going forward, there is no practical alternative.

The new policy would seek to anchor future Iraqi security in a regional structure that would be a continuation of the "neighbors" talks begun earlier this month at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. To make that structure work, the administration is talking with Iran and Syria in what officials hope will become a serious dialogue about how to stabilize Iraq.

The post-surge policy would, in many ways, track the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, which senior administration officials say the president now supports. It also reflects the administration's recognition that, given political realities in Washington, some adjustments in existing policy must be made. The goal is a policy that would have sufficient bipartisan support so it could be sustained even after the Bush administration leaves office in early 2009.

The senior official discussed the outlines of a "post-surge" policy late last week, in what he said was an effort to build bipartisan support from Congress and the American public. His comments appeared to be a "trial balloon" aimed at testing whether a Baker-Hamilton approach could gain traction in Washington. The official's description of a post-surge policy focused on elements that Democrats say they would continue to support, such as training the Iraqi military and hunting al-Qaeda, even as they set a timetable for withdrawal of combat forces.

Here's the summary the senior official provided of the policy he said is under discussion:

-- Train Iraqi security forces and support them as they gain sufficient intelligence, logistics and transport capability to operate independently.

-- Provide "force protection" for U.S. troops that remain in Iraq.

-- Continue Special Forces operations against al-Qaeda, in the hope of gradually reducing suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on the Iraqi government. "That's the accelerator for sectarian violence," said one official.

-- Focus U.S. activities on the two big enemies of stability and democracy in Iraq -- al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.

-- Maintain the territorial integrity and independence of Iraq.

-- Ensure the near-term continuation of democracy in Iraq. That means supporting top-down reconciliation through a new oil law, new rules to make it easier for former Baath Party members to play a role in the new Iraq, provincial elections and changes to the Iraqi constitution to meet Sunni demands. It also means support for bottom-up reconciliation, such as the recent push against al-Qaeda by Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, and recent peace feelers from radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The administration's exploration of "Plan B" alternatives in Iraq tracks a similar discussion that has been taking place among top military leaders. The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, recently gathered top counterinsurgency experts, such as Col. H.R. McMaster, in Baghdad for a critical review of the surge strategy. There's a growing recognition in Baghdad, sources said, that the U.S. lacks a strong local partner because of the weakness and sectarian base of the Maliki government. In addition, the new Centcom commander, Adm. William Fallon, has publicly stated his view that the surge strategy is just "chipping away at the problem" and that "reconciliation isn't likely in the time we have available."

The wild cards in this new effort to craft a bipartisan Iraq policy are the Republican and Democratic leaders, President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They both say they want a sustainable, effective Iraq policy, but each is deeply entrenched in a partisan version of what that policy should be. America is in a nosedive in Iraq. Can these two leaders share the controls enough that Iraq will become a U.S. project, rather than George Bush's war? There's a bipartisan path out of this quagmire, but will America's leaders be wise enough to take it?

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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