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The Fire in Iraq

By David Ignatius

"Sometimes you just have to let a fire burn." George Shultz, a former secretary of state who was trained as an industrial economist, is said to have made that remark about labor negotiations that have reached an impasse. It applies with ever-greater clarity to Iraq.

But how far should we let the Iraqi fire burn, and at what cost to the rest of the neighborhood?

Firefighters face this sort of triage question every day. When a blaze is really roaring, they know it's crazy to remain in the middle of the inferno. The potential loss of life is too great, and the likelihood they can stop the fire is too small. So they make strategic choices: They try to contain the blaze, letting it burn out in the red-hot center while hosing down nearby buildings and constructing firebreaks that can check the spread.

What's unimaginable is that a firefighter confronting a dangerous blaze would simply roll up the hoses, jump in the engine and drive away, consequences be damned. He may be furious at the people who caused the fire, and frustrated with the first engine company that let it get worse. But those aren't reasons for abandoning the scene.

The firefighting analogy is imperfect. But it does convey two points that are worth considering as the national debate deepens over what America should do in Iraq.

First, it's increasingly clear that, despite President Bush's surge of an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq, U.S. forces cannot stop the sectarian inferno there. Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites will continue fighting until one side breaks the other's will, or an accommodation is reached. America has been trying to broker such a reconciliation, but it isn't happening. At some point soon (and for me, that's the end of this year), we may have to conclude that this is a situation where, as Shultz said, you just have to let the fire burn.

Second, the red-hot fire in Baghdad doesn't mean that America should withdraw its troops entirely from Iraq. That's just too dangerous when the risks include a sectarian war that could engulf the Middle East, a humanitarian crisis that could include millions of refugees and an oil price that could spike to $150 a barrel.

An imaginary fire chief would argue for redeploying U.S. forces so that they aren't caught in the middle of collapsing walls and blazing timbers. U.S. troops should keep training Iraqi forces to fight this blaze. At the same time, they should create firebreaks so the disaster doesn't spread to other rooms in the Iraqi house. The Kurdish north can be protected. So can the Shiite south. And so too, maybe, the Sunni west.

Most of all, a "firehouse strategy" would argue that we must keep this sectarian blaze from jumping national boundaries. U.S. and Iraqi troops can create buffers by moving significant forces toward Iraq's borders -- to keep Iraq's neighbors out, and to prevent al-Qaeda and other groups from exporting terrorism.

The best framework for such an approach remains the bipartisan report issued last December by the Iraq Study Group. It proposed shifting the primary U.S. mission from combat to training and equipping the Iraqi military. Other essential tasks for U.S. forces include attacking al-Qaeda, helping secure Iraq's borders and protecting the Green Zone.

How many U.S. troops would be required for this reconfigured mission?

Less than the current 150,000, certainly. How fast that number can be reduced next year will depend on conditions in Iraq, as the Iraq Study Group recommended. But once President Bush and Congress settle on a post-surge strategy, they ought to give it time to work. A continuous Washington debate over funding for U.S. troops will demoralize our side and embolden the enemy.

What's needed is bipartisan agreement on a sustainable Iraq policy. Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, will make a progress report in September, but it's clear he won't be able to show enough improvement that Congress will endorse an open-ended surge. Sen. Richard Lugar told the president publicly this week what many Republicans have been saying privately: The current strategy must be adjusted to match domestic political reality. As Lugar and other Republicans break with the administration, some prominent anti-war Democrats, such as Sen. Carl Levin, are defying the left wing of their party by rejecting a cutoff of funds for U.S. troops in the field. The elements for compromise are there.

The nation is so angry about Iraq that we sometimes forget what would be obvious if it was a four-alarm blaze in a nearby city. Some fires do have to burn, but leaving the scene isn't an option.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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