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A Menu of Options on Iraq

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
December 14, 2006


With Congress soon to change hands, a critical report on Iraq grabbing headlines, and an incoming defense secretary with different views from his predecessor, President Bush’s Iraq policy appears poised to change. Bush postponed a major speech on the matter until early next year to consider other in-house reports, and rumors swirl he may embrace a short-term “surge” (LAT) in the number of U.S. forces deployed. Bush’s clearest signal so far is that he rejects calls for an early withdrawal of troops. In Iraq, meanwhile, car bombs and other attacks kill Iraqis on a daily basis and growing numbers are seeking protection from local militias. 

The latest plan to tamp down the violence, floated by Iraqi officials, envisions Iraqi armed forces assuming responsibility for securing the capital, leaving the U.S. military free to fight foreign jihadis in Anbar province (SFChron). Another plan, devised by outgoing U.S. commander in Iraq Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, would shift half of the U.S. military’s fifteen combat brigades toward advisory missions and boost the number of embedded trainers threefold (WashPost). The effectiveness of advisory missions in training Iraqi forces is examined in this new Backgrounder.

But military action and training missions without significant political progress will not solve Iraq’s woes, argues Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And such progress has been stalled amid sharp government divisions over issues of national reconciliation, revenue sharing, and the role of militias. In recent weeks, Bush has phoned Kurdish leaders and met with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a prominent Shiite leader, and Tariq al-Hashemi, a prominent Sunni leader, fueling speculation the White House may be weighing alternatives to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (TIME). Both Hakim and Hashemi have been vocal critics of Maliki. “There’s a growing sense that Maliki is not at the center of power,” says Kalev Sepp of the Naval Postgraduate School in this podcast. U.S.officials have criticized the Iraqi leader for failing to confront militias or the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is accused of stoking sectarian violence in the south and slums of Baghdad.

U.S. policymakers are confronted with a number of scenarios, none of them guarantees of success: One is to create a rival coalition of moderate Shiites and Sunnis to isolate Sadr and ease pressure off Maliki, who is seen as beholden to the Shiite cleric. Another—the so-called eighty-twenty plan—is for Washington to throw its weight behind the Shiites and Kurds, who make up 80 percent of Iraq’s population, and back them politically, if not militarily. A third scenario is the status quo: continue to push for national reconciliation and amnesty, revise the de-Baathification process to bring Sunni Arabs with technocratic skills into the government, and attempt to serve as an honest broker among Iraq’s warring factions.

The Iraq Study Group report says the ability of the United States to influence events inIraqis diminishing over time. Given this reality, some experts, including CFR President Richard N. Haass, say the United States should “cut its losses,” adding that “[t]he sooner the post-Iraq era of U.S. foreign policy dawns the better.”

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