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President Bush's new plan for Iraq could soon run into old obstacles

WASHINGTON—President Bush unveiled what the White House called a "New Way Forward" in Iraq on Wednesday night, but the plan faces old obstacles that have defied solution ever since the United States invaded Iraq nearly four years ago.

Bush's plan relies even more than past stratagems on a weak Iraqi government to fulfill promises it's repeatedly broken to take on sectarian militias and end political squabbles.

It calls for Iraqis to beef up their forces in Baghdad to help quell raging violence there, four months after the Iraqi government failed to contribute four of the six battalions of troops it promised to a similar security effort.

The plan calls for reordering Iraq's Interior Ministry, something that American officials have been insisting on since last spring, when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki came to office.

Bush also said that Iraq's government would pass a new law on distributing oil revenues and revise its de-Baathification program, which keeps members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party out of government. But both efforts have been stymied by opposition in Iraq's parliament.

The biggest course change is the declaration that Iraqis will be in charge of the effort to secure Baghdad, which al-Maliki has been pushing for.

Bush aides, who detailed the plan in a series of documents and briefings, insisted Wednesday that this time is different. Al-Maliki has pledged to deploy more Iraqi forces to stabilize Baghdad, and the full U.S. troop contingent and financial aid package won't flow unless he follows through on that and other steps, they said.

But if al-Maliki fails to deliver, the president appears to have little leverage other than to bring U.S. troops home—and abandon the "victory" in Iraq that he insists is vital to U.S. national security.

"An awful lot depends on the Iraqis. We don't control the Iraqis anymore," said Daniel Serwer, a vice president of the government-funded U.S. Institute of Peace.

Some current and former U.S. officials said they believe that by placing so much of the burden on the Iraqis, Bush is preparing to blame them for the debacle in their country and withdraw American troops.

Bush for the first time Wednesday said that the U.S. commitment in Iraq isn't open-ended—though he put no time limit on how long Americans would wait to see whether al-Maliki fulfilled his promises. The first test will come Feb. 15, when the additional Iraqi troops are to be deployed in Baghdad.

The president's strategy, the product of a more than two-month review, does abandon some key tenets that have guided U.S. strategy in Iraq for more than a year.

Gone is the attempt to reach out to Sunni insurgents; previous efforts to bring them into the political process didn't reduce violence, and the U.S. is ending any effort to do so.

Gone, too, is the rapid effort to replace U.S. troops with Iraqi ones, captured in the mantra "As they stand up, we will stand down." While training Iraqi troops remains the key U.S. mission, the No. 1 U.S. goal in Iraq is the defeat of al-Qaida and its supporters.

Outside analysts said they saw some positive elements in the plan, such as a focus on protecting Iraqi civilians and jump-starting the economy from the grass roots—both classic elements of counterinsurgency doctrine. Bush proposes almost $1.2 billion in new economic assistance in Iraq and a doubling of U.S. civil-military reconstruction teams.

But many said they feared Bush's modified tactics are too little and too late to make up for past blunders in Iraq. Those include invading with too few troops, disbanding the Iraqi army, underestimating the cost of the venture and misjudging the rapid growth of Iraq's insurgency.

"The problem is the solutions applied three years ago or two years ago might have stabilized the situation. . . . I find it hard to see they will apply today," said Judith Yaphe, a Persian Gulf expert at the National Defense University.

At best, the current and former officials said, Bush's plan might produce measurable improvement in Baghdad's security—perhaps returning it to the situation before February 2006, when the bombing of an important Shiite mosque in Samarra set off Iraq's civil war.

The core of Bush's "New Way Forward" is a bid to end the endemic violence in Baghdad by deploying 17,500 more U.S. troops and thousands of additional Iraqi troops and police and adopting new rules of engagement.

White House officials said Iraqi forces would take the lead, with American troops embedded in Iraqi units.

That's been tried before, too, and failed, in last summer's joint effort to bring security to Baghdad, called Operation Forward Together.

For the new plan to work, the Iraqi government must crack down on both Sunni and Shiite extremists, top military officials in Baghdad said.

But al-Maliki has refused to move against the militias of powerful Shiite politicians, including firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who are the bedrock of his political support. It is unclear why he'd do so now.

Sunnis, representing Iraq's now-dispossessed minority, criticized the U.S. troop increase even before Bush formally announced it. Sunni insurgents are certain to react with more violence to joint security sweeps by U.S. troops and forces of the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

On Tuesday, some in Iraq thought they saw what a security plan under al-Maliki could look like when Iraqi forces struck Haifa Street in central Baghdad, a longtime Sunni insurgent trouble spot.

U.S. and Iraqi forces fought suspected insurgents for 12 hours in an operation that Sunni politicians charged was sectarian. After Sunnis responded to an attack by al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, they charged, the Iraqi army came in with American forces and struck the Sunnis but did nothing about the Shiite extremists who were there earlier.

The Iraqi government has long claimed that if it quells the Sunni insurgency, the violent reaction from the Shiite militias will end and they'll be disarmed. That approach has been tried and failed, but there's no sign that the al-Maliki government is rethinking it.

Whether Iraqi troops will be up to the task of helping pacify Baghdad neighborhood by neighborhood is as questionable as ever.

During Operation Forward Together, some Iraqi forces did their jobs well. But most daily missions started late, as Iraqi commanders and U.S. forces counted how many Iraqi troops came to work that day.

While U.S. and Iraqi troops were in troubled neighborhoods, such as Amariyah in western Baghdad, crime did fall. But as soon as the troops left, the insurgents moved back in, and the violence, including sectarian killings, car bombings and explosions, surpassed previous levels.

Many wonder where the Iraqi government will find fresh troops for Baghdad. U.S. military transition team leaders in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah told McClatchy Newspapers last month that predominantly Kurdish brigades there would dissolve if they were ordered to the capital.

How al-Maliki might bring about political reconciliation, another aspect of Bush's plan, also is unclear. There's intense skepticism that he can move beyond his Shiite base and deliver his half of the bargain, as even a senior Bush aide acknowledged Wednesday.

"There is obviously skepticism, and the president has made that very clear to this (Iraqi) government: People are skeptical—your people are skeptical, our people are skeptical. I will support you, but you need to perform," said the official, briefing reporters anonymously under White House ground rules.

Larry Diamond of Stanford University's Hoover Institution said Bush should have demanded action from the Iraqis before pledging additional U.S. troops and money.

"They've made commitments many times before, and they aren't delivered upon," said Diamond, who served as a democracy adviser in postwar Iraq. "The deadlines and goals are constantly slipping—and they're like mush."

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(Youssef reported from Baghdad. McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Leila Fadel contributed from Baghdad.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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