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Bush runs out of options as chaos deepens

by Finacial Times Friday, May. 07, 2004 at 2:14 PM

"I find even the administration's strongest supporters, including fervent advocates of the war a year ago and even some who could be labelled 'neo-conservatives', now despairing and looking for an exit"

Bush runs out of options as chaos deepens

By Guy Dinmore

Published: May 6 2004 21:04 | Last Updated: May 6 2004 21:04

Iraq's deepening crisis has left the Bush administration with few options, and although the US has entrusted the United Nations with the task of finding a way towards political stability and elections, officials and analysts close to the White House admit that hopes of success are receding fast.

Insiders describe a lack of direction and a prevailing sense of gloom and desperation in the administration. This gloom has only been intensified by the exposure of torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Analysts point to an absence of clearcut strategy that has seen repeated personnel changes and policy reversals resulting from continuous battles between the State Department and the Pentagon. The White House national security advisers are blamed for not resolving the interagency battles.

This "dysfunctional" administration as described by Robert Kagan, a prominent foreign policy thinker, is mirrored by an increasingly public battle of recriminations among President George W. Bush's conservative supporters.

While Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy, may be able to put together a weak caretaker government with limited authority by the June 30 target date set for the handover of sovereignty, many in the administration fear violence will derail meaningful, UN-supervised elections set for January 2005.

"They [the administration] are flying blind," comments one former official just back from service in Baghdad. "They recognise it is a mess. There is no consistency in vision and when they do agree, there is no consistency in implementation.

"We are seeing a devolution of powers in an absence of clear strategy. Local commanders are making local decisions that have profound implications for the rest of the country."

Marina Ottaway, analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, says the Bush administration has run out of options and is already lowering expectations of what Mr Brahimi can achieve.

Anthony Cordesman, just back from Iraq for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says political tension has escalated and security deteriorated to such an extent that the US no longer has a viable military solution to fighting insurgents.

The US lacked effective options "other than to turn as much of the political, aid, and security effort over to moderate Iraqis as soon as possible, and pray that the United Nations can create some kind of climate for political legitimacy," he wrote this week.

This sense of confusion was highlighted last week in the Sunni town of Falluja, where Marines failed to dislodge insurgents and then turned for help to local militia and former Saddam-era officers. The Arab world and many Iraqis saw the outcome as a rebel victory.

"The insurgents want political recognition. They want to make Falluja a Ba'athist mini-state," said Entifadh Qanbar, Iraqi National Congress spokesman.

Among the Shia majority in Najaf and Karbala, there is a sense of outrage that ex-Ba'athists are being allowed to return. For the Shia, who were brutally suppressed under Saddam Hussein, the move reaffirms suspicions that the US intends to repeat history and install a Sunni strongman.

And the US failure to disband the many militias and private tribal armies, or integrate them into a national army, reflects how Iraq is splintering in the absence of a strong central government.

How it will end few care to predict. But there is increasing talk - some close to the administration call it "plan B" although it does not exist as such - of engineering Iraq's division into three loosely-linked mini-states, perhaps a confederation.

At best it will be a controlled fragmentation, as advocated by former US ambassador Peter Galbraith, into a system resembling the former Yugoslav model of republics. The danger is a bloody Balkan-style break-up as Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia fight for disputed territory and resources.

Mr Galbraith, who has long been associated with the Kurdish cause and also served in the Balkans, believes Iraq "is not salvageable as a unitary state". Writing in the New York Review of Books, he also says a break-up is not a realistic possibility "for the present" because of hostility from neighbours wary of similar demands for self-rule by their own Kurdish and Shia communities. Attempts to define the specifics of a federal Iraq were abandoned during the writing of the interim constitution.

For many conservatives in Washington - especially the ideologues who envisaged Iraq as a shining example of America's power to bring about change - talk of lowering expectations or allowing Iraq to fall apart smacks of "cut and run".

"I find even the administration's strongest supporters, including fervent advocates of the war a year ago and even some who could be labelled 'neo-conservatives', now despairing and looking for an exit," Mr Kagan, a champion of American potency, wrote in the Washington Post. "All but the most blindly devoted Bush supporters can see that Bush administration officials have no clue about what to do in Iraq tomorrow, much less a month from now," he continued, asking why the president tolerated "a dysfunctional policymaking apparatus".

Some neo-conservatives have called for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary. Others blame the State Department and Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator. Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon analyst now with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has attacked the "racism and condescension" towards Iraqis of diplomats of the State Department. "The State Department, Centcom and CIA argument that only a strongman or benign autocrat can govern Iraq creates a self-fulfilling prophecy," Mr Rubin wrote in the National Review Online. Other commentators who backed the war are starting to blame the Iraqis instead.

Opinion polls are starting to show a small US majority losing faith in the war, but President Bush still projects an air of steadfast and faith-based confidence.

Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state, said that after the deaths of more than 700 American soldiers in Iraq there would be "no cutting and running", nor any lowering of the bar "which has been set as a stable and democratic Iraq".

This gives heart to the neo-conservatives and others who fear Mr Bush's advisers and campaign managers might hang up the "Mission Accomplished" sign - and then head for the door.

"Our coalition is implementing a clear strategy in Iraq," Mr Bush told the nation in his latest weekly radio address, pledging stability and democracy. But he also warned that more violence was likely as the handover of sovereignty approached.

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