3 years into war, lower expectations for Iraq

As administration downgrades goals, civil war poses greatest challenge


WASHINGTON -- Three years ago, as they ordered more than 150,000 U.S. troops to race toward Baghdad, Bush administration officials confidently predicted that Iraq would quickly evolve into a prosperous, oil-fueled democracy. When those goals proved optimistic, they lowered their sights, focusing on a military campaign to defeat Sunni-led insurgents and elections to jump-start a new political order.

Now, as the conflict enters its fourth year, the Bush administration faces a new challenge: the prospect of civil war. And, in response, officials appear to be redefining success downward again.

If Iraq can avoid all-out civil war, they say, if Baghdad's new security forces can hold together, if Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds all participate in a new unity government, that might be enough progress to allow the administration to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in the country by the second half of this year.

In increasingly sober public statements - and in slightly more candid assessments in interviews with officials who refused to be identified - the administration is working to lower expectations.

"It may seem difficult at times to understand how we can say that progress is being made," President Bush said yesterday in his weekly radio address, acknowledging that much of the recent news from Iraq has been bad. "But ... slowly but surely, our strategy is getting results."

His comments came as thousands of anti-war protesters took to streets around the world, marking the anniversary with demands that coalition troops leave immediately. More than 1,000 people gathered in Times Square in New York. Protests were also held in Australia, Asia and Europe.

A senior official directly involved in Iraq policy said in an interview, "We may fail. But I think we're going to succeed. I think we're going to nudge this ball down the road. ... It's not going to be easy, and it's going to take time."

The administration's more sober tone is not new; officials from Bush on down have tacitly acknowledged for more than a year that stabilizing Iraq has been more difficult than they expected when they launched the war in 2003.

But independent foreign policy analysts say they see signs of a more fundamental shift in the administration's position - a creeping redefinition of U.S. goals in Iraq that increasingly allows for the possibility that Iraq might remain unstable for years to come.

"It isn't going to be pretty," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last month. "It isn't going to look like the United States of America. It's going to be an Iraqi solution politically, an Iraqi solution economically and an Iraqi solution from a security standpoint."

"Initially, we were going to stay until the insurgency was defeated," said James F. Dobbins of Rand Corp., a former special envoy under Presidents Clinton and Bush. "About a year ago, we amended that in a fairly important way by saying we were going to stay until the Iraqi government and its army and police were capable of coping with the insurgency. We redefined victory in terms of the Iraqis' capability instead of the defeat of the insurgency.

"Now even that measure of success has proven elusive," Dobbins said. "At this point, I think we would be content if we could diminish our presence, allow the Iraqis to simply hold their own against the insurgency and prevent the country from rupturing into an even more serious civil war than the one that now exists."

The upsurge in violence between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in recent weeks, which reached a peak after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, touched off what one official called "a moment of fear" inside the administration - a sense that events in Iraq could spiral beyond any measure of U.S. control.

In the aftermath of the bombing, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned: "We have opened the Pandora's box. ... There is a concerted effort to provoke civil war."

Rumsfeld, asked whether U.S. forces would intervene in an inter-Iraqi conflict, said: "The plan is to prevent a civil war and, to the extent one were to occur ... from a security standpoint, have the Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they're able to."

Before the recent violence, U.S. military officials said they hoped to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq this year from about 130,000 to about 100,000. Officials said last week that the violence could slow the U.S. drawdown but added that they still expected some troop reduction to occur.

But the senior official warned that the U.S. strategy of nurturing a new "unity government" and building multi-ethnic Iraqi security forces was still dangerously vulnerable to events.

"Sectarian violence ... is not going down as [quickly] as we would like to see," he said. "A surge further in sectarian violence, way below what I would call a civil war, is still enough to really threaten what we're trying to do there, because it strengthens the militias, it strengthens the radicals, it weakens the security forces."

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