‘Dramatic change of direction’ coming for Iraq

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The escalating violence raking Baghdad and other Iraqi cities is pushing that nation’s leaders, neighboring Arab countries and U.S. advisers to consider a dramatic change of direction in the conduct of the war.

Leaks from a U.S. task force headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III are contributing to the widespread sense that the Bush administration is preparing for a “course correction” in the coming months.

The options cited most frequently in Washington include the partition of Iraq into three ethnic- or faith-based regions, and a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, with some remaining in neighboring countries to deal with major threats.

Another scenario is being discussed — and taken seriously in Iraq — by many of Iraq’s leading political players, under which the U.S.-trained army would overthrow struggling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace him with a strongman who would restore order while Washington looks the other way.

Falah Hassan al-Naqib, a Sunni politician who served as minister of the interior in the interim government led by Iyad Allawi until last year, told The Washington Times he has met repeatedly with American and Iraqi generals to discuss alternative courses of action.

“All of them have a ‘Plan B,’ because if the situation continues as it is, they will have to defend themselves — not just find bodies all over,” Mr. al-Naqib said this summer at his house in Baghdad.

Mayhem has continued in Baghdad despite a U.S. decision to redeploy some 8,000 U.S. troops into the capital over the summer. Officials yesterday reported the deaths of 10 American troops across the country, putting October on track to be the deadliest month in almost two years.

On Monday, The Washington Times reported that Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was “more sober” and “more concerned” about the ability of the Iraqi security forces when he privately briefed senior military and civilian leaders in Washington last week. Defense sources said he had appeared more upbeat over the winter about the Iraqi security force’s progress.

The sources said, however, Gen. Casey was not pessimistic and still thinks the U.S. will win in Iraq. Gen. Casey’s spokesman said the general thinks the Iraqi security forces have made great progress and are on track to take over more counterinsurgency missions.

Others in the Bush administration have contributed to the sense that the al-Maliki government has been put on a short leash, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying on a trip to the region Oct. 6 that Iraqi leaders “don’t have time for endless debates on these issues. … They have really got to move forward.”

Days before that, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said on CNN that the Iraqi government, “in the course of the next two months, has to make progress in terms of containing sectarian violence.”

Similarly, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, told reporters after a trip to Baghdad this month that Congress will have to make “bold decisions” if the Iraqi government does not bring the sectarian killings under control.

Even Mr. Baker, whose bipartisan commission is expected to hand its recommendations to the Bush administration after the congressional elections, said on ABC’s “This Week” that “I happen to think, and I think it’s fair to say our commission believes, that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives … of stay the course and cut and run.”

President Bush reassured Mr. al-Maliki in a telephone call on Monday that there was no deadline hanging over his administration, but that has done little to quell the speculation.

The most talked-about scenarios for a “Plan B” include:

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