WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials have begun to question a key presumption of American strategy in Iraq: that establishing democracy there can erode and ultimately eradicate the insurgency gripping the country.
The expectation that political progress would bring stability has been fundamental to the Bush administration's approach to rebuilding Iraq, as well as a central theme of White House rhetoric to convince the American public that its policy in Iraq remains on course.
But within the last two months, U.S. analysts with access to classified intelligence have started to challenge this precept, noting a "significant and disturbing disconnect" between apparent advances on the political front and efforts to reduce insurgent attacks.
Now, with Saturday's constitutional referendum appearing more likely to divide than unify the country, some within the administration have concluded that the quest for democracy in Iraq, at least in its current form, could actually strengthen the insurgency.
The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey, has acknowledged that such a scenario is possible, while officials elsewhere in the administration, all of whom declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, say they share similar concerns about the referendum.
Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arabs, who are believed to form the core of the insurgency, are bitterly opposed to a constitution drafted mainly by the country's majority Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds. Yet from all indications, the Sunnis will fail to muster enough votes to defeat it.
"It could make people on the fence a little more angry or [make them] come off the fence," said a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity.
A growing number of experts outside the administration and in Iraq agree with such assessments.
"If the constitution passes in a non-amicable way, the violence will increase," said Ali Dabagh, a member of Iraq's transitional National Assembly who is believed to be close to Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.
The White House has consistently linked the building of democracy in Iraq and the broader Middle East with the defeat of the insurgency.
President Bush repeated that assertion Thursday in a policy address to the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "If the peoples of [the Middle East] are permitted to choose their own destiny and advance by their own energy and by their participation as free men and women," he declared, "then the extremists will be marginalized and the flow of violent radicalism to the rest of the world will slow and eventually end."
Vice President Dick Cheney has put it more succinctly. "I think
Those comments echoed an assertion put forward earlier by the Pentagon: U.S. forces could not defeat the insurgency through military might alone; success required redeploying troops to protect the nascent democratic process. That process, commanders said, together with military force, would eventually smother rebel violence.
Despite what Bush on Thursday called "incredible political progress" in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's fall 2 1/2 years ago, the Iraqi insurgency has grown in strength and sophistication. From about 5,000 Hussein loyalists using leftover Iraqi army equipment, it has mushroomed into a disparate yet potent force of up to 20,000 equipped with explosives capable of knocking out even heavily armored military vehicles.
"The surface political process has stumbled forward, but the insurgency came up and kind of stayed that way," said a U.S. government analyst with access to classified intelligence. Several analysts, who spoke on condition of anonymity while discussing intelligence, indicated that initial evidence of the disconnect began to surface in the spring -- after Iraq's first national elections on Jan. 30 -- and it has gradually become clearer since.
Doubts about such a central pillar of Iraq policy come at an awkward time for the White House: Polls show eroding public confidence in Bush as a leader and in his management of the war. In recent days, Bush, Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have tried to shore up public support for staying in Iraq.
But Middle East experts say they have found little correlation between Iraq's emerging democracy and the rebellion's strength.
"The democratic process as it has worked so far has certainly done nothing to undermine the insurgency," said Nathan Brown, who researches Middle East political reform at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Robert Malley, co-author of a September report by the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that deals with conflict resolution, concluded that approval of the draft constitution could make things worse. Malley called the administration's Iraq policy "a case study of pinning too much hope on an electoral process without doing so much of the other work."