WASHINGTON (Dec. 2) - The Bush administration is re-evaluating its efforts to unite Iraq's fractious sectarian and political factions in an attempt to preserve U.S. options in Iraq no matter what happens, officials familiar with an internal administration review of Iraq policy said Friday.
A senior U.S. official said that as part of that examination, the administration has debated whether to abandon U.S. efforts to bring Sunni insurgents into the political process to stabilize Iraq and instead leave that outreach to the majority Shiites and Iraq's third major group, the Kurds. No decision has been made.
Some U.S. officials have argued that the outreach to Sunni dissidents has failed and may be alienating Shiites, who dominate the government and are the country's largest sect.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the debate, said senior State Department officials have countered that ending U.S. attempts to increase the Sunni stake in government would leave the root causes of the insurgency unaddressed. Opponents of the strategy say that it could also appear the United States is taking sides in Iraq's sectarian divide and could alienate close U.S. allies in the region.
The administration has watched as its stated goal of helping the Iraqis erect a model democracy grew increasingly remote this year. Sectarian violence has intensified and thousands of Iraqis have fled their neighborhoods or left the country to escape tit-for-tat killings and kidnappings.
The administration's internal review may recommend a revamped U.S. approach that focuses less on the major Shiite and Sunni political factions in the Baghdad government and more on identifying U.S. interests across a diffuse power structure and reducing the U.S. role as middleman in some of the most contentious Iraqi political fights.
The administration also does not plan to alter its strategy of isolating adversaries Iran and Syria, despite mounting pressure to enlist those influential Middle East nations in a diplomatic push to stabilize Iraq, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the internal review is still under way.
Leaders of the internal administration review presented their incomplete conclusions to Bush on Sunday. A final report is expected in about two weeks and will reflect the views of senior officials at the State Department, White House National Security Council, Pentagon and other agencies.
The group's work parallels that of a congressionally chartered bipartisan commission whose recommendations are due next week. The commission, known as the Iraq Study Group, will recommend engaging Iran and Syria as part of a larger group and perhaps one-on-one, officials familiar with the panel's findings have said.
The Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., will also recommend gradually phasing out the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq from combat to training and supporting Iraqi units. However, the report due Wednesday sets no timetable, according to officials familiar with the group's deliberations.
Expanding on previous reports that the commission would urge troop withdrawals beginning early next year, a U.S. official said the report also recommends a "conditions-based" goal of completing combat troop withdrawals by early 2008. That is short of a firm timetable, and would leave in place troops needed to train and support the Iraqis.
The commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq said Friday that four Iraqi army divisions in his area will be put under Baghdad's control by next March.
"I can certainly see great opportunity to reduce the amount of combat forces on the ground" in the north "and turn more responsibility over to Iraqi security forces," Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon told Pentagon reporters in a videoconference from his headquarters near Tikrit.
Some U.S. commanders in Iraq already are shifting some troops from combat to support roles while giving the Iraqi Defense Ministry more control over Iraq troops.
Bush repeatedly has rejected a wholesale troop withdrawal or what he calls artificial deadlines. There are about 140,000 American troops are in Iraq.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are to meet Monday in Washington with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians, in a bid to find a new approach. One official said the president will meet in Washington in January with a Sunni leader - Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.