WASHINGTON—Less than five months after President Bush announced that "we need to change our strategy in Iraq," his administration is preparing to change course there once again, this time emphasizing political rather than military progress.
The administration's latest Iraq strategy, which military and civilian officials in Baghdad and Washington are assembling and national security adviser Stephen Hadley is coordinating, stresses efforts to strengthen the Iraqi army and the central government and weaken sectarian forces, said three U.S. officials who have firsthand knowledge of the plan.
The officials, all of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they aren't authorized to discuss Iraq policy publicly, said the evolving plan—which Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are preparing—didn't envision any significant drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq before 2008.
However, they said, "the search for a new direction," as one of the officials described the effort, was prompted by a recognition that the increase of American and Iraqi troops in Baghdad hasn't produced the improvements in security or the political progress that proponents of the buildup had expected and that domestic support for the administration's Iraq policy, even among Republicans, is ebbing quickly.
The administration's new Iraq war "czar," Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, remains skeptical that the surge can succeed, and instead has favored the kinds of political steps that Petraeus and Crocker have advocated, one of the officials said.
There's little optimism in Baghdad or Washington, however, that a new effort to strengthen the Iraqi army, bolster the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and weaken Sunni Muslim insurgents and Shiite Muslim militias is likely to succeed.
There's widespread skepticism that either al-Maliki, whom Bush pressed again for political progress in a telephone call Monday, or the Iraqi parliament is prepared to make the concessions necessary to pass new laws on sharing oil revenues, holding provincial elections and other issues that the Bush administration says are necessary.
A number of U.S. officials also doubt whether Shiite militiamen can be purged from the police, Interior Ministry and other government agencies, as the new strategy envisions.
On Wednesday, Bush used a commencement address at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to send another message to Iraqi leaders.
"As we carry out the new strategy, the Iraqi government has a lot of work to do," he told academy graduates in New London, Conn. The president urged the Iraqi government to "meet its responsibility to the Iraqi people and achieve benchmarks it has set."
Bush won an important victory for his Iraq policy this week when Democrats abandoned their effort to attach a withdrawal timetable to the latest war-spending bill. But Republican lawmakers have warned the president that their support could erode quickly if there's no significant progress in Iraq by September.
Meanwhile, Democrats face increasing pressure from antiwar activists to bring the troops home.
Publicly, the president and his advisers express confidence that the decision to send more troops to Iraq is making a difference. Privately, some administration officials are far more pessimistic.
One of the major problems, one official said, is the Badr Corps, which is the military arm of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which controls several government ministries, holds a key position in parliament and controls much of southern Iraq, which lies across the U.S. supply routes from Kuwait.
"Maliki was one of the leaders in purging Sunnis from the government and the military, he's soft on the (Shiite) militias and he's losing altitude in parliament," one of the U.S. officials said. "He may not be inclined to take many risks, under the circumstances."
Another official said he was skeptical that the Bush administration can find any credible Iraqi nationalists and persuade them to step forward, especially since doing so would invite assassination from Sunni and Shiite extremists. "The nationalists were mostly members of the (Sunni) Baath Party or a few secular Shiites," the official said. "And forget about finding a Kurd who's an Iraqi nationalist."
A former senior U.S. defense official who still advises the Pentagon said he thought the troop buildup was doomed because there were insufficient numbers of American troops and the insurgents were gaining strength.
He expressed doubts that Iraq's Shiite and Sunni leaders ever intended to make the political deals needed to reduce sectarian bloodletting, because each side apparently thinks that it can defeat the other. He said both sides might embrace benchmarks for progress in Iraq, knowing that failure to meet them might lead the U.S. to withdraw.
"The benchmark may be what they want," he said. "If you (the Shiites and Sunnis) are both convinced that you can win, why not hasten the day of a U.S. withdrawal?"
(Staff writer Ron Hutcheson contributed to this story.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.