WASHINGTON -- President Bush and his top aides and military advisers, struggling to define a new strategic direction for the war in Iraq, meet tomorrow with a blue-ribbon Iraq study group to begin reviewing options for ending Iraq's bloody agony and bringing American troops home.
The accelerated review comes days after voters, fed up with the lack of progress in Iraq, swept Republicans from power in Congress and forced Bush to acknowledge the need for a "fresh perspective" on the war.
Yet a sober assessment suggests that the policy choices on Iraq are meager, the risks enormous and the prospects for success dim, according to a wide range of government officials, military officers and outside experts.
As has been clear since the summer of 2003, when a vicious insurgency erupted from the rubble of the U.S. invasion and took Bush administration officials by surprise, policies set in Washington don't dictate events in Iraq.
"Politics in the United States can change all day long, and in practical terms I don't think a lot is going to change on the ground" in Iraq, said James Jay Carafano, a former Army officer and an adviser to the Iraq Study Group, chaired by foreign policy heavyweights James A. Baker III, a former Republican secretary of state, and Lee H. Hamilton, a retired Democratic lawmaker.
"There's only so many things you can do, and the biggest vote is cast by the enemy," Carafano said.
The Baker-Hamilton group is expected eventually to recommend a series of options centered on a phased U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq as a way to pressure Iraq's central government, under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to move ahead with reconciliation between warring Shia and Sunni factions and disarm their militias.
No consensus has been reached among the group's five Democrats and five Republicans on the conditions and timetables for a U.S. withdrawal, officials said, and the options may be presented as potential courses of action with benefits and risks spelled out for each one.
The idea of a phased withdrawal plan, long scorned by the Bush White House as "cut and run," suddenly seemed possible last week as Bush dismissed his hard-line defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, and chose as his successor former CIA director Robert M. Gates, a member of the Baker-Hamilton group who is believed to be skeptical of the Bush administration's Iraq policies.
The price of inaction or failure is high in a war that has cost at least 2,845 American lives and left more than 21,000 others wounded in battle. Last week, Iraqi officials estimated the civilian death toll at 150,000.
The stakes, experts said, are enormous - and many of the questions, as yet, unanswerable.
When combat-weary troops line up for transport home, will it be in triumph or humiliation at a job left unfinished? Will they leave behind a functioning Iraqi government, a society growing toward democratic pluralism, with the violence under control? Or will there be a chaotic regional war that spurs more international terrorism, a war in which those seen as U.S. collaborators will be hunted down and killed, as occurred in Southeast Asia after American forces withdrew 32 years ago?
To help manage what most agree will be a tricky and dangerous transition in Iraq, a number of options are in play. They include:
Appointing a senior presidential envoy, or "contact group," of seasoned diplomats, to reach out to Syria and Iran, enlisting their agreement, at a minimum, to stop sending fighters and weapons into Iraq. It is not clear what the United States could offer in return. The diplomatic initiative would attempt to secure more international political and economic support for the al-Maliki government from regional players such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Europe.
A massive international aid package, tied to specific Iraqi government reforms.
A significant new push to accelerate reconstruction and jump-start Iraq's economy. One of the biggest problems at the moment, officials said, is widespread unemployment, which has enabled insurgents to hire people to plant roadside bombs in exchange for a fistful of dollars.
Commercial advisers are badly needed, military officers said, to help central government ministries deal directly with Iraqi firms for goods and services. In the past, most businessmen were Sunnis and worked through vast government-owned enterprises, so expertise is needed to help small Shiite-owned businesses.
Accelerating training and equipping of Iraqi security forces. What has been done so far to enable the Iraqi army and police to operate independently is only "the tip of the iceberg," said Rick Alpaugh of the Army's Security Assistance Command, which provides such things as weapons and helicopters, and spare parts and maintenance training to the Iraqi forces.
Separately, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday that planners are working "right now" on changes to the U.S. military strategy. Among their issues: