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Panel Likely to Recommend Iraq Policy Changes


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan. I'm Linda Wertheimer.



And I'm Steve Inskeep.

From Baghdad to Washington there's talk of new approaches to the war in Iraq. U.S. military commanders say their effort to pacify Iraq's capital is not working. As we'll hear in a moment, they are preparing to re-focus their efforts.

WERTHEIMER: We begin here in the U.S., where the Bush administration's goal of staying the course seems to be getting harder. But the alternatives bring problems of their own.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on choosing among bad options.

TOM GJELTEN: This month is turning out to be one of the deadliest yet for American troops. Iraqis are dying at a rate not seen since the bloodiest days of Saddam Hussein. The mutual killing between Sunnis and Shiites will soon amount to civil war if it hasn't already.


Against that background, President Bush now faces second-guessing on his Iraq policy by even staunch Republican allies. By Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, for example, who called this week for a course correction in Iraq and reinforced that point during an election debate last night in San Antonio.

Senator KAY BAILEY HUTCHINSON (Republican, Texas): It isn't going the way we would like for it to go, so we should come up with ideas. That's what leaders do.

GJELTEN: White House Spokesman Tony Snow yesterday dismissed as a bunch of hooey a report that the administration is, in fact, preparing an Iraq course correction. But the president himself last week said that if the Iraq plan is not working, the United States, in his words, needs to adjust. And the view that it isn't working is now pretty widespread.

Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is just one of many Iraq analysts right now saying U.S. policy has to change.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN: You can't stay the course when things are getting steadily worse. If we don't change, it's clear we're going to fail. We're going to see civil war become uncontrollable and we're going to lose our ability to influence the situation.

GJELTEN: The biggest problem in Iraq is that U.S. authorities haven't been able to get Sunni and Shiite leaders to work out their political differences and cooperate in stabilizing the country. Cordesman says the United States could offer new aid programs to the various parties as an incentive for them to come together. A coercive version of that idea would be to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq in phases, thus sending a message to the Iraqis that if they don't work things out quickly, they'll be left without any U.S. military protection.

But at the White House yesterday, Spokesman Tony Snow said the idea of a phased withdrawal is a non-starter.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Spokesman): No, you withdraw when you win. Phased withdrawal is a way of saying, regardless of what the conditions are on the ground, we're going to get out of Dodge.

GJELTEN: Some analysts and members of Congress say the United States should send still more troops to Iraq to stabilize it long enough to allow the political process to take hold. But the U.S. force is so stretched that few troops are available. Another option would be for the United States to acknowledge that the Shiites and Sunnis, as well as the Kurds in the north of Iraq, are set on fighting each other and will never agree on a unified government. U.S. authorities could instead help them to partition the country into three semi-autonomous areas.

But this week President Bush ruled this option out, and Larry Diamond of Stanford University, who served as a political adviser in Iraq, says splitting up the country could be disastrous.

Mr. LARRY DIAMOND (Stanford University): There's no way this is going to happen peacefully. It's going to bring on precisely the full-scale civil war that it is meant to try to preempt.

GJELTEN: For one thing, Diamond says, the groups would probably find it impossible to split up the country's oil revenues. Another danger of partition, he says, is that Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency is most fierce, if left under the control of an autonomous Sunni authority, could become a haven for al Qaeda.

President Bush may be looking for new ideas from former Secretary of State James Baker, who is co-chairing an advisory Iraq study group, due to make policy recommendations after the November elections. Two sources close to Baker say he and his group are inclined to suggest that the administration deal with Iraq more within a regional framework, engaging with the governments of Iran and Syria, and even linking an Iraq peace effort to progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What all these options have in common is a suggestion that the Bush administration's original goal of a democratic, unified, pro-American Iraq is probably no longer viable.

Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations served as director of policy planning at the State Department under President Bush during his first term. Haass told reporters here yesterday that the administration needs, in his words, to get real about Iraq.

Mr. RICHARD HAASS (Former State Department Official): The Iraq situation is not winnable in any meaningful sense of the word: winnable. So what the United States needs to do now is look for a way to limit the losses and costs, and in the meantime, try to advance on other fronts in the region and around the world, and again, try to limit the fallout of Iraq.

GJELTEN: There is one other point on which these outside experts agree: with violence in Iraq getting worse by the day, there's not a lot of time left to turn things around.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.