Can Team Bush Contain the Iraq WMD Fallout?

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Paul Bremer is shown the computer screen on a new U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicle in Mosul

No longer able to credibly maintain that weapons of mass destruction may yet be found in Iraq, the Bush administration has moved to insulate the President from any political fallout from the collapse of his case for war. The White House announced Monday that a commission of inquiry will be appointed to probe the apparent failures of prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq, and would likely report back some time next year. Rather than face mounting pressure to explain the discrepancy between Iraq's actual capability and the "grave and gathering danger" warned of by President Bush and his aides, the White House has acted preemptively to quarantine the WMD issue for the election season. Instead of asking the electorate to wait for the weapons inspectors to complete their work, the electorate will now be asked to await the outcome of the commission.

The strategy is not without risk. Appointing a commission is a tacit admission that the original case for war did not pan out. But the administration has moved since last summer to emphasizing reasons other than WMD to justify the invasion: Saddam was an evil dictator who threatened his neighbors and brutalized his people; the world, and Iraq in particular, is a better place without him. Opinion polls suggest that many Americans are ready to forgive the administration its exaggeration of the WMD threat if the Iraq invasion produces a happy ending at a limited cost in American lives and treasure. Even some Republicans concede that the strategy depends on things going well in Iraq. But the renewed escalation of violence there, combined with the mounting uncertainty over its political future, suggest the situation on the ground in Iraq may not conform to the President's reelection script.

Washington had hoped that the capture of Saddam Hussein would gut the insurgency that has inflicted a steady drip of fatalities on U.S. forces since the fall of Baghdad. But if December's comparatively light casualty figure — just seven troops killed in combat — had given cause for optimism, January proved to be the second-deadliest month of the occupation of U.S. soldiers, with some 36 killed in combat. And last weekend's bombings in Irbil that killed 56 Iraqis at the headquarters of the two main Kurdish parties working with the U.S. were a sharp reminder that Iraqi civilians are paying an even higher price, with thousands killed since the invasion began.

The U.S. strategy in the face of the ongoing violence has been to transfer as much of the security responsibility as possible to Iraqi forces. It's easy to understand the logic of moving U.S. forces out of harm's way in the streets of the capital, where almost ten months after its capture, U.S. soldiers on routine patrols are targeted on a daily basis. The insurgents have also mirrored the U.S. strategy by increasingly directing attacks at Iraqi security forces supporting the coalition — more than 600 Iraqi policemen have been killed since April.

The ironic silver lining in the current wave of violence is that it offers persuasive evidence in support of Washington's argument that elections can't be held before its July 1 deadline for handing power to an Iraqi provisional government. The leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority have rejected the U.S. plan to select such a government at regional caucuses controlled by its handpicked Iraqi Governing Council. Instead, the country's most powerful spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has demanded democratic elections, and rather than put itself at odds with a pro-democracy movement among Iraq's majority community, Bremer has sought to accommodate the ayatollah's objections. Sistani's demand, backed by tens of thousands of demonstrators in Iraq's major cities in recent weeks, has prompted the U.S. to seek UN intervention. Sistani has indicated that he'll take no for an answer on elections only if it comes from Kofi Annan, who has agreed to send a team to assess the viability of an early vote.

If the UN says elections can't be held by summer, the Shiites will insist on something substantially more democratic than Bremer's caucus plan. Sistani wants elections to ensure that the Shiites finally achieve political influence commensurate with their majority status. Ever since Iraq was first created in the mapping rooms of the British Foreign Office, its Shiites — and Kurds — have been ruled by the Sunni Arab minority. Coalition officials believe one of the factors fueling indigenous support for the insurgency is the Sunni minority's fear of losing its traditional privileges. Accommodating Sunni concerns, as well as the crypto-secessionist demands of the Kurds, is the major challenge facing Bremer's administration, now that the ouster of Saddam's regime of fear has lifted the lid on Iraq's centrifugal forces. The Shiites want their majority to be decisive, and their perception that the U.S. betrayed them in 1991 when the first President Bush urged them to rise against Saddam and then stood by while they were slaughtered has left little trust among Iraqi Shiites in Washington's intentions. Sistani has played a masterful game of using his moral authority first to block U.S. efforts to transfer power to a government of its own making, and then to force them to bring back the UN as the final arbiter of the election standoff.

The Kurds, meanwhile, represent a second, but equally uncomfortable headache for Bremer. They're openly resistant to reincorporating the de facto state they created in northern Iraq under the umbrella of the no-fly zone into a wider Iraq in which they're a minority; instead they want to expand it to take in the northern oil towns of Mosul and Kirkuk and expel the Arab population settled there by Saddam Hussein over the past two decades. A Kurdish statelet in the north is anathema to the Shiites and Sunni, and Turkey — which regards Kurdish self-determination as a mortal threat to its own naitonal security — has signaled that it would be prepared to invade to prevent such an outcome. Turkish prime minister Recip Erdogan left Washington last Wednesday plainly unconvinced by President Bush's assurances on the issue of Kurdish autonomy. And the weekend's bombings in Irbil are expected to strengthen the secessionist impulse among Iraqi Kurds.

Bremer's problems are magnified by the binary nature of the conflicts he faces: Each move to accommodate Sistani is greeted with anger by the Sunni and Kurdish representatives on the IGC; each indication of a concession to Kurdish demands raises hackles among Shiite and Sunni leaders. Confronted by an increasingly complex array of political choices in Iraq, the Bush administration is reportedly divided over how best to proceed. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly favor dispensing with the caucus plan to hand over power directly to the Governing Council, expanding its Shiite representation in the hope that this would mollify Sistani. The State Department and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice reportedly oppose the idea, advocating a more cautious approach that seeks to engage with Sistani on the question of elections. But it is increasingly clear to the administration that there are no good options in Iraq. Allowing elections is to invite uncertainty — the process itself would likely escalate ethnic tension and raise the danger, warned of by the CIA, of a slide into civil war. And it's unlikely that a government elected directly would be particularly friendly towards the U.S. or agree to a long-term presence of U.S. troops. But handing over power to the IGC, which U.S. officials long ago conceded lacks popular legitimacy, could inflame Shiite opposition and leave U.S. troops having to defend an unpopular regime from its own citizens.

Come November, if American voters are presented with a U.S. commitment in Iraq with a visible endpoint, and which advanced the greater good despite significant costs, the Republicans have good reason to believe the question of WMD will not weigh heavily on voters' minds. But it's far from clear right now that come Election Day, a happy ending will be in sight for Iraq.