SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN

Unless the Bush administration recognises that Iran might hold the key to peace in Iraq, the people of Iraq will pay the price of American adventurism for years to come.

Today, more than 150,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq. The total number of U.S. service personnel killed is 2,838 and is rising every week.

WITH the absence of weapons of mass destruction and a rising number of U.S. military casualties exposing both the lies and the hubris of the Iraq occupation, the conviction of Saddam Hussein was meant to be the cathartic moment when all misgivings about the wisdom of the war enterprise could finally be put to rest. If the invasion, in the final retelling of the tale, was about ridding the Iraqi people of dictatorship, what better way to bring about closure than to have the dictator packed off to the gallows? Brushing aside the well-documented concerns of human rights groups and even a United Nations panel - the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention - the Iraqi High Tribunal rushed through its work completely oblivious to the need for fairness. But in the end, not even its improbably timed and wholly predictable verdict sentencing the former Iraqi president to death could extricate the Bush presidency from the jaws of political defeat.

Reaction to loss

President Bush has reacted to the loss of both houses of Congress to the Democrats in this month's elections by replacing Donald Rumsfeld, the Iraq war's chief prosecutor, with Robert M. Gates, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency. A close associate of James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, who served as Bush 41's Secretary of State and National Security Adviser respectively, Gates has directly and indirectly been associated with a policy line on critical foreign policy issues such as Iran that is sometimes at variance with the Bush orthodoxy. The Deep Establishment of which he is a part was always a little wary of the ideological baggage that the Neoconservatives had loaded on to the project for the preservation and extension of American power in the Post-Cold War world. And as the Iraq fiasco threatens to undermine American hegemony in West Asia by dragging the U.S. to the brink of a political and even military defeat, the search for an alternative strategy to defeat the resistance and stabilise Iraq has emerged as the number one strategic concern of all sections of the establishment.So apparent is the impending humiliation that even the Neocon ideologues who supplied the ideological justification for the Iraq invasion are now rapidly deserting the sinking ship of the "Greater Middle East" that the 2003 invasion was meant to launch. Richard Perle, ranking hawk on the Defence Policy Board Advisory Committee until 2004, is no longer so sure the war was a good idea. "I think now I probably would have said, 'Let's consider other strategies for dealing with the thing that concerns us most, which is Saddam supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists'," he is quoted by Vanity Fair magazine as saying in a forthcoming issue. Other influential Neocons who have done a flip-flop include Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute whose proximity to senior Bush strategist Karl Rove is well known. In 2002, Ledeen launched a withering attack in the National Review on Scowcroft for "[coming] out against the desperately-needed and long overdue war against Saddam Hussein and the rest of the terror masters". Today, he claims "there are many ways to wage a war" and that he never advocated military action.In 2002, Perle and Ledeen were no lone rangers but part of a cabal with deep influence in the Pentagon and White House. Other members of the group included Rumsfeld, his erstwhile deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, senior Pentagon intelligence official Stephen Cambone, and Abram N. Shulsky, who headed the 'Office of Special Plans' from which crooked intelligence about Iraqi WMD flowed thick and fast.When he takes charge of the Pentagon, the easiest job Gates will have will be to shut down Shulsky and the rest of the Neocons but that will not take him or the Bush administration any closer to an honourable exit from Iraq. As matters stand, two high-level panels are in the process of reviewing United States' strategy in that country. There is the Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. Set up by Congress in March this year, its recommendations are expected shortly. There is also the military's own review process undertaken by a team of colonels put together by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. With the prospect of failure weighing heavily on its mind, the Bush administration is hoping that either of these panels will come up with an elusive roadmap out of the Iraq quagmire.Today, more than 150,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq. The total number of U.S. service personnel killed is 2,838 and is rising every week. The bill for military operations stands at over $300 billion, compared to the $38 billion spent by the U.S. government on the reconstruction of Iraq. Economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz have pegged the overall cost to the U.S. economy of the Iraq war at over $2 trillion. On the other side of the ledger, the comprehensive field-based survey of mortality rates published in the Lancet suggests close to 700,000 Iraqis have lost their lives since the U.S. invasion of their country. Most parts of the country still do not have uninterrupted power supply with even Baghdad neighbourhoods getting electricity for just a few hours a day. Oil production, the bedrock of the Iraqi economy, stands at 12 per cent less than the level it was at before the war.

All pervading violence

But more than economic hardship, it is the relentless, mysterious, all-pervading violence, which most concerns the average Iraqi. The U.S. says it wants an end to sectarian killings but many of its policies have exacerbated divisions. And the occupation, in turn, has benefited from the bloodletting. Shia-Sunni violence, which had abated in 2004 and 2005 as rival militias sought to coordinate their attacks on the U.S. occupation force, has once again become a major problem following the mysterious bombing of the Askari mosque in Samara earlier this year.Though the Bush administration is waiting for the Baker-Hamilton and Pace reports with bated breath, there are only a discrete number of policy options from which these two panels will have to choose their recommendations. And each has its own limitations and weaknesses.

Option 1: Reduce troops

This is the option favoured by most Democrats, and presumably by the U.S. electorate, which would like to get its soldiers out of harm's way in Iraq. But the drawback here is that the 'Iraqisation' of security has not at all gone according to plan. Not only are the U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers poorly motivated, it is clear that they are functioning as little more than a sectional army with links to the Shia militias. In any event, a drawn down U.S. force would continue to be the target of resistance attacks and would eventually give rise to pressure to withdraw completely from Iraq. Neither the White House nor the Pentagon is keen for such an eventuality.

Option 2: Increase troops

Influential military analysts and politicians like Senator John McCain have argued that the U.S. has too few soldiers on the ground and that far from reducing the number of service personnel deployed in Iraq, there is a need dramatically to augment their presence. The McCain plan would see tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops rotated into trouble spots like Baghdad and the "Sunni triangle", as well as Shia strongholds with the aim of taking on and liquidating the Mahdi militia of Moqtada al-Sadr. Tempting though this option sounds, all previous U.S. attempts to defeat the Iraqi resistance by overwhelming force as in Fallujah, Tal Afar, Baqubah and elsewhere have led to higher U.S. casualties and an increase in Iraqi alienation. Sending more U.S. troops in, then, will only aggravate the situation further.

Option 3: Partition by another name

With neither a reduction nor an increase in troops that are palatable as options for U.S. planners, it is possible that the scenario of partition might gain more traction. Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations have come up with a plan for the three-way division of Iraq into loose confederating units that will amount to partition by another name as time passes and religious and ethnic militias become stronger. This is the nightmare scenario for most Iraqis, the one option that would make matters - intolerable though they are now - even worse. The division of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves will inevitably lead to demographic cleansing and bloodshed of an unimaginable proportion and also force Iraq's neighbours, especially Turkey, to intervene. To forestall a Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan, the suggestion made is that U.S. forces relocate there. Even if that maintains stability in the north, the southern part of Iraq would descend into chaos.

Option 4: Regional conference

Given the experience of the Dayton conference, which allowed the U.S. to enforce peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, some analysts have suggested that the convening of a regional conference on Iraq with the participation of the invading powers as well neighbours like Iran, Turkey and Syria might open up the prospects for the eventual stabilisation of the country. But as Richard Holbrooke, the architect of Dayton has reminded us in a recent interview, the Ohio conference worked because the U.S. was there to bomb recalcitrant factions into submission. Here, the conference is being convened because of the failure of the military option. And that will certainly affect the dynamics of the process as far as the U.S. is concerned. Nevertheless, of all the options available, certainly this one looks the least unpalatable from the Iraqi and regional perspective. Of course, it would involve the Bush administration giving up its aversion to direct engagement with Iran despite the latter's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. In 2004, Robert Gates and Zbignbiew Brezinski co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations report on Iran, which advocated the resumption of dialogue between Washington and Tehran. In 2003, Rumsfeld and the Neocons in government got the Bush administration to rebuff a major overture made by the Iranians for a comprehensive dialogue. With Rumsfeld gone and the Neocons in retreat, it is possible Washington may be more receptive to the idea of working with Tehran. At any rate, as part of his work for the Iraq Study Group, James Baker recently had a long meeting with Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.There was a time the U.S. used to boast of its ability to fight and win two wars simultaneously at different locations halfway around the world. Iraq has shown that it is not even possible for it to win one properly. Iran today has said it is willing to work with the U.S. provided the U.S. is receptive to its legitimate concerns. In many ways, this offer holds the key to winning the peace in Iraq. But does President Bush have the courage and foresight to realise it?