WASHINGTON—More than a year after President Bush took the nation to war to make Iraq a model for democracy for the entire Middle East, his administration's plans have collided with reality.
After previous efforts failed to stabilize Iraq, Bush has been forced to make a series of sharp policy reversals, ditching or modifying the initial blueprint for remaking the country.
In quick succession, the White House has handed the United Nations the lead in selecting an interim government, moved more tanks and heavy armor into the country, and softened a harsh policy of excluding members of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime from the new Iraq.
In Fallujah, the administration has turned to a former general in Saddam's army to suppress a violent uprising against the U.S.-led military occupation. The general, wise to the symbols of power in Iraq, showed up in his old uniform. In the Shiite south, the administration has been unable to crush a ragtag militia led by renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
That restoring order, reviving a ravaged economy and replacing a brutal dictatorship with a democracy is proving to be much harder and costlier than Bush and many of his advisers thought it would be is testimony to how little they thought—and planned for—what might go wrong.
"There was no debate about the wisdom of going to war," said one senior administration official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "No discussion of pros and cons, of what might happen, no planning for the unexpected. It was just something we were going to do."
White House spokesmen portray the changes as prudent course corrections as they grapple with mounting U.S. casualties and persistent instability in Iraq.
Critics say they represent a grudging acknowledgement that the administration's strategy and planning were flawed and its tactics have been riddled with errors that have boxed Bush in and left him few good options.
The mistakes and oversights have also left American troops in Iraq fighting to defeat an armed insurgency with only a shaky political strategy, although the nation's counterinsurgency doctrine says that guerrillas can't be defeated by military means alone.
It didn't have to be this way, critics inside and outside the administration say. Top Bush administration officials ignored and even disparaged pre-invasion warnings from their military, intelligence and foreign policy professionals—warnings that proved prescient.
They instead pursued a course urged by Iraqi exiles and their neoconservative allies in Washington, which envisioned a joyous welcome for U.S. troops and the quick installation of a pro-American government.
"The administration's plan today is exactly what they rejected in the fall of 2002 because it wasn't ideologically compatible," said David Phillips, who was an adviser to an intensive State Department-led planning effort called "The Future of Iraq Project."
The results of the project—which Knight Ridder has reviewed—were ignored by Pentagon planners, according to State Department officials and other participants.
It's uncertain whether a good outcome is still possible in Iraq, where U.S. troops are battling insurgencies by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Iraqis' support for the U.S. presence is plummeting. A caretaker government, which will take over in 60 days with limited powers, has yet to be chosen.
It also remains to be seen how far Bush is willing to go in correcting course.
Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, including controversial Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, are resisting the new approach and efforts by the U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to exclude them from the interim government.
A senior administration official deeply involved in Iraq policy, asked to comment on the recent policy changes, replied: "I don't spend much time looking in the rearview mirror.
"It runs into bumps in the road from time to time ... but we have a plan," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Criticism of the postwar effort is no longer limited to Democrats on Capitol Hill and Middle East specialists.
"The problem in Iraq ... is the failure of policymakers at the highest levels to fashion a military and political strategy that maximizes the odds of success," conservative analysts Robert Kagan and William Kristol wrote recently in the Weekly Standard magazine.
"It is clear there have been failures in planning and in execution," they wrote.
One of the most striking was the decision, pressed by Chalabi, to disband the Iraqi Army and purge members of Saddam's Baath Party from their jobs, many of them as teachers and professors.
Announcing the purge was among civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer's first orders when he arrived in Baghdad a year ago, and analysts said the move frightened and alienated members of Iraq's once-privileged Sunni minority, which had formed the backbone of Saddam's government, and helped give impetus to a violent Sunni rebellion against the U.S.-led coalition.
Bremer recently said he was reinstating thousands of former Baathists.
White House officials sought to downplay such policy changes. "We characterize it as an adjustment," said one official, who requested anonymity. "Any wise person evaluates the situation and makes adjustments to the realities they find."
The Iraqi expatriates who authored the "Future of Iraq" papers had differing views on how far to go in disbanding the army and pursuing "de-Baathification." But they warned of the likely consequences of eliminating both institutions wholesale.
Former officials of Saddam's security services may "present a destabilizing element, especially if they are left without work or ability to get work," they wrote in a November 2002 document. "De-Baathification cannot mean dismissing from their jobs all two million Iraqis who belong to the Baath Party, or conducting witch hunts based on rumors and allegations."
Those involved in the project say it wasn't an infallible plan for postwar Iraq, but it could have helped avoid many of the current problems. Knight Ridder was allowed to examine 13 volumes of planning that the project produced, on the condition that it didn't name the source. The papers aren't classified, but some are marked "For Official Use Only."
Juan Cole, a University of Michigan expert on Iraq's majority Shiite population, said he believes Bush's flawed approach stemmed from an ideological desire to create an "Americanized" Iraq that would be allied with Israel and to install exiles such as Chalabi in power.
"The after-war situation was handled with a level of gross incompetence that boggles the mind. The incompetence derives in part from the fact that high U.S. officials had ulterior motives," Cole charged.
"Iraq as a social engineering project on a massive scale was simply beyond the reach of the United States."
Cole and others point to other early mistakes at the outset of the U.S. occupation, including the failure to control widespread looting or to hold local elections across Iraq.
The "Future of Iraq" project urged both steps and warned about likely instability.
Saddam's atrocities "have created entire groups of victims impatient for revenge and score-settling when the opportunity presents itself after a regime change," it says.
"The period after regime change might offer" criminals released by Saddam "an opportunity to engage in acts of killing, plunder, looting, etc."
Shortly before the war, Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the U.S. Army chief of staff, told Congress that it would take "several hundred thousand" American troops to pacify and stabilize Iraq. He was rebuked by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who called the estimate "wildly off the mark."
But now the Pentagon has halted plans to reduce the U.S. contingent in Iraq from about 130,000 to 105,000 and is deploying more tanks and heavy armor.
In a different section, the "Future of Iraq" project offered another pithy warning. "Historically," it says, "Iraq is a difficult nation to rule."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040430 USIRAQ deaths
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):