What Baker Should Tell Bush

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Mr. President:

As you know, the commission that I co-chair with lee Hamilton isn't scheduled to submit its Iraq-policy recommendations until next month, but the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and I felt compelled to offer this unofficial interim report. Your range of options in Iraq has narrowed dramatically. It is possible that the situation is beyond salvage. The remainder of your presidency may be spent managing the international consequences of a historic policy failure. You must change course dramatically and soon. Your stated objectives—democracy, stability in Iraq—can remain the same, but your priorities must change. Democracy must take a backseat to the restoration of order.

Let me be blunt: the U.S. military campaign to stabilize Iraq has failed. We have lost control of Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold. We are losing the battle for Baghdad. Muqtada al-Sadr's militia has taken control in several predominantly Shi'ite provinces. The government in Baghdad is near collapse. Sadr's support is the only real power base that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has left. If the political equation isn't changed soon, it is likely that Sadr will emerge as the de jure leader of Shi'ite Iraq. This will certainly lead to a full-scale civil war and Kurdish secession.

Are there any viable options to anarchy? More troops? The U.S. military is overstretched and exhausted. Partition? The atmosphere in Baghdad is too chaotic and bitter for a new power-sharing deal among the Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. The last best chance to restore order and hold Iraq together may be a dramatic ecumenical expansion of the Iraqi security forces under new leadership. We need to rectify the most serious error we made in Iraq after our initial military success and restore elements of the Baath Party, especially its former Shi'ite military leaders, to positions of power. Each of Iraq's neighbors, with the exception of Iran, believes that some version of this proposal is the best immediate course of action.

We know that former Baathists have been at the heart of the Sunni insurgency. In Anbar province, for example, a key financier and coordinator of the insurgency has been Rashid Taan Kazim—one of the few cards in the deck representing Saddam's leadership circle we weren't able to capture. We are negotiating in Jordan with Baathist representatives of the Sunni insurgency; we're trying to split them off from the al-Qaeda-in-Mesopotamia terrorists, and we may succeed if a re-Baathification program is put in place. It is less well known that Sadr's Shi'ite militia, the Mahdi Army, also has a strong Baathist component. U.S. military intelligence estimates that upwards of 30% of Sadr's militia leaders are former members of Saddam's armed forces. There is communication, and occasionally collaboration, between these Sunni and Shi'ite Baathists. In the spring of 2004, elements of the Sadr organization helped stoke the Fallujah rebellion. The question is, Can a military leader be found—preferably a Shi'ite who served honorably in Saddam's army—who can command the loyalty of all these groups? How many of those who served in Saddam's army can be recruited into an expanded and reorganized Iraqi armed forces? Can a state of emergency be declared, with power transferred temporarily to an Executive Council composed of military and civic leaders?

It's a long shot, Mr. President. There are many obstacles. The most immediate is Muqtada al-Sadr, who must be removed from the equation. We cannot be the agency of his removal, of course, but Sadr has many enemies, including rivals within his own organization. The other Shi'ite parties will also be obstacles—and, of course, the Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani will need to be assuaged—but the strength of these groups has diminished as Sadr's power has increased in the past year, and it is possible they can be brought into the tent. The threat of a U.S. withdrawal, which would leave these groups at the mercy of both Sadr and the Sunnis, can be effectively paired with financial carrots and positions on the Executive Council. The Kurds would have to be guaranteed continuing autonomy. Strong U.S. financial and logistical support of an expanded Iraqi military would have to be part of the package, as would a major diplomatic effort to involve Iraq's neighbors in regional stabilization. It would not be pretty or easy. We would have to find common cause with some very bad actors. I know it would be a bitter pill, Mr. President, but it may be your least worst choice in Iraq—and I believe the American public will be receptive to anything that can bring an end to this sad campaign.