AS SECTARIAN violence rises in Iraq and the White House comes under increasing pressure to revamp its strategy there, a debate is emerging inside the Bush administration: Should the U.S. abandon its efforts to act as a neutral referee in the ongoing civil war and, instead, throw its lot in with the Shiites?
A U.S. tilt toward the Shiites is a risky strategy, one that could further alienate Iraq's Sunni neighbors and that could backfire by driving its Sunni population into common cause with foreign jihadists and Al Qaeda cells. But elements of the administration, including some members of the intelligence community, believe that such a tilt could lead to stability more quickly than the current policy of trying to police the ongoing sectarian conflict evenhandedly, with little success and at great cost.
This past Veterans Day weekend, according to my sources, almost the entire Bush national security team gathered for an unpublicized two-day meeting. The topic: Iraq. The purpose of the meeting was to come up with a consensus position on a new path forward. Among those attending were President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor Stephen Hadley, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.
Numerous policy options were put forward at the meeting, which revolved around a strategy paper prepared by Hadley and drawn from his recent trip to Baghdad. One was the Shiite option. Participants were asked to consider whether the U.S. could really afford to keep fighting both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias -- or whether it should instead focus its efforts on combating the Sunni insurgency exclusively, and even help empower the Shiites against the Sunnis.
To do so would be a reversal of Washington's strategy over the last two years of trying to coax the Sunnis into the political process, an effort led by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. It also would discount some U.S. military commanders' concerns that the Al Mahdi army, a Shiite militia loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, poses as great a threat to American interests as that presented by the Sunni insurgency centered in western Iraq's Al Anbar province.
So what's the logic behind the idea of "unleashing the Shiites"? It's the path of least resistance, according to its supporters, and it could help accelerate one side actually winning Iraq's sectarian conflict, thereby shortening the conflict, while reducing some of the critical security concerns driving Shiites to mobilize their own militias in the first place.
"As an alternative Plan B, it has the virtue of possibly being more militarily effective," said Thomas Donnelly, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"When you are trying to police [a civil war], all you can do is contain it," said Monica Toft, a professor specializing in ethnic conflict at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Whereas if you're backing one side, there are not as many variables to control."
But such a strategy brings with it significant dangers. Washington might pick the wrong leaders on the side it chooses to back. Should it, for instance, continue to back Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri Maliki, or tilt in favor of his Shiite rival, Abdelaziz Hakim, and his party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq? Either choice could lead to more intra-Shiite infighting and violence.
Or the strategy could drive Iraq's Sunni tribes to align themselves more closely with Al Qaeda. And it seems certain to further alienate Iraq's Sunni neighbors and erstwhile U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan -- while strengthening Iran's hand in Iraq.
Among the risks of an unleash-the-Shiites strategy is that if it were adopted, the White House would be unlikely to publicly acknowledge that such a choice had been made. Like so much else that has contributed to the U.S. difficulties in Iraq, it would be a decision taken in the dark, outside the realm of public debate.