Looking For The Least Bad Iraq Plan

Amid the sharpening debate over whether or not the United States should withdraw from Iraq, a new study by the respected Rand Corp. think tank sheds some light on why Bush administration officials have been defending their controversial "surge" plan so vociferously. Put simply, the other options are all worse.

"The United States is faced with a portfolio of unappealing options, many of which appear to have little chance of producing positive results," a group of Rand researchers write in their 102-page report "U.S. Policy Options for Iraq."

A military force big enough to disarm Iraq's numerous combatants, for example, would require as many as 500,000 U.S. troops. Iraqi forces will not be ready to fill that role "anytime soon," the report says. Choosing winners and losers among the sectarian and ethnic factions would certainly backfire, as would a U.S.-backed partition of the country.

A withdrawal, meanwhile, would likely stoke sectarian strife and draw in Iraq's neighbors, leading the Rand report to conclude that the Bush plan to tamp down violence and push for a brokered political settlement among the various factions is the only remaining option.

This reluctant endorsement, however, won't make it any easier for the Bush administration to defend its surge plan to irate Democrats in Congress or an increasingly skeptical American public ahead of a key September report on progress in Iraq.

The problem is that the surge plan, like the entire U.S. strategy for the past few years, relies on the ability of Iraq's political leaders to reach difficult compromises. "This strategy has not worked, in great part because Iraq's leaders are hedging against the failure of a unified Iraq by seeking to ensure the security of their own ethnic and religious groups," the report claims. "The persistent effort of all parties to buttress their own positions contributes to the violence and the likelihood that Iraq will fail."

Certainly, the signs from the surge plan so far are mixed at best. Violence has ebbed in some areas of Baghdad, but the overall level remains high. The Rand report notes that sectarian violence--and not attacks by insurgent attacks or, as President Bush often suggests, al Qaeda in Iraq--is the main threat to Iraq's stability.

In addition, even as the U.S. military appears to be making some progress in reducing violence by Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias are emerging as the biggest threat to U.S. forces. Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the day-to-day commander in Iraq, recently reported that 73 percent of the attacks that killed or wounded U.S. soldiers in Baghdad last month were staged by Shiite groups. At the same time, Iraq's political leaders have yet to meet any of the political benchmarks for much-needed reforms and are unlikely to make any progress at all this month with the Iraqi parliament in recess until September.

The Rand study, prepared for the U.S. Air Force, does conclude that the Bush administration needs to tweak some key portions of its current policy to have any chance of success. Among the recommendations: Lean harder on Kurdish leaders to prevent a Kurdish takeover of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk; open a broader dialogue with Iran and Syria about Iraq; disband Iraqi units with records of abuse; and ensure that all U.S. military patrols are conducted with Iraqi units.

Another finding suggests that the U.S. military should consider curtailing the use of airstrikes in urban or other congested areas because the civilian casualties that often result only further anger Iraqis. Air power remains a favored tactic by U.S commanders. On Tuesday, the U.S. military launched a raid in a crowded Sadr City neighborhood using attack helicopters and warplanes. U.S. officials claimed to have killed some 30 insurgents with airstrikes, but local Iraqis focused on a different statistic put out by Iraqi officials--nine civilians, incuding two women, killed in the attack.

The Rand report also includes a more ominous warning: "Even if current policies remain unchanged, the U.S. government should prepare now for the repercussions of either success or failure.... If U.S. goals are not attained, violence continues to escalates, and the U.S. forces are withdrawn, the U.S. government needs to plan now to mitigate the consequences of withdrawal."

By Kevin Whitelaw