Washington's Worst-Kept Secret: Changes Are Coming in Iraq Policy

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A U.S. Marine from the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Kilo company guards the observation post on the roof of the main Iraqi government building complex in Ramadi, Iraq.

It has become conventional wisdom in Washington's foreign policy circles that "staying the course" in Iraq is untenable. That's why much of Washington and the media is focused on the secret deliberations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, initiated by congressional Republicans and endorsed by the White House. The panel, headed by former former Secretary of State and Bush family consigliere James Baker, will not report until after November's elections, which will avoid a serious reexamination of Iraq policy being subsumed in partisan bickering.

While the specifics of its proposals are not yet clear — or, says Baker, even finalized — the broad premise guiding those recommendations appears to be that the U.S. needs to try to salvage the best possible outcome given that the achievement of its original goals in Iraq appear increasingly unlikely. The New York Sun first reported last week that Baker's group would make clear that "victory" in Iraq, in the sense that the White House uses the term — establishing a stable democracy capable of defending itself and serving as an ally in the U.S. war on terror — is beyond reach.

Such a conclusion certainly jibes with the facts on the ground: Iraq has become a charnel house with a current average of around 100 Iraqis killed every day in rampant sectarian bloodletting, while the U.S. casualty count continues to climb at a steady clip — October 2006 is currently on track to be the third-deadliest month for U.S. troops since the invasion of Iraq. The U.S. has long recognized that the insurgency can't be eliminated by military means; instead it hoped that it could be defanged by a national reconciliation process pursued by the elected government, which would coax Sunnis away from the insurgency by dismantling Shi'ite militias and by giving them a greater political stake. At the same time, security duties would be transferred increasingly into the hands of Iraqi forces. But six months after the new government took office, the national reconciliation process is effectively stalled. And the reason American casualty figures have spiked in recent months is that U.S. troops have had to resume a greater role in security operations, particularly in and around Baghdad.

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