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Friday, November 21

Iraq 'Plan C' relies on security, cooperation of Shiites

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - It's being called ``Plan C'' for Iraq: establish security by June or sooner and transfer authority to a provisional Iraqi government by July.

This third version of the U.S. occupation and rebuilding strategy for Iraq - intended to accelerate the process - coalesced over the past several weeks amid a spate of attacks against U.S. troops.

As some of the details have become apparent through recent political and strategy shifts, experts say, two components will play critical and telling early roles:

- The competence of quickly trained Iraqi security guards who will soon start replacing weary U.S. troops.

- Iraq's majority Shiites who have the numbers and, now under the new U.S. plan, the opportunity to take control of the political process, for better or worse.

Initially, the Bush administration put the occupation and rebuilding under the authority of retired Army Gen. Jay Garner, who lasted five weeks in the job. Paul Bremer, widely respected for his get-it-done ethic, followed with a seven-point plan that would take 18 months before vesting any real authority into Iraqi hands.

The latest configuration comes at a particularly sensitive time for Bush. He is now facing tremendous pressure to show voters U.S. forces have turned a corner in Iraq to assure soldiers that their deployments will eventually end. Bush must also convince Iraqis that they'll get their country back in the foreseeable future under a legitimately elected government.

``We are finding an administration that is looking for ways out of this mess,'' said Ivo Daalder, co-author of the recently published book ``America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy.'' ``They recognize there is a mess.''

The new strategy faces its first high-profile test in January, as Iraqis take over security in one of Iraq's most dangerous towns.

^January's test

The town of Ramadi lies about 70 miles west of Baghdad in the explosive ``Sunni triangle,'' a 100-mile swath from Baghdad north to Tikrit where the vast majority of guerrilla attacks against U.S. forces occur.

In January, the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division will put Iraqi security forces in charge there in the first major test of the rapidly trained Iraqi forces.

U.S. forces have come under daily attack in Ramadi, but the U.S. commander there is confident that Iraqis are ready for this important transition.``Ramadi is getting very close to having the conditions to go ahead and conduct this kind-of-like transition around the first of January,'' Army Maj. Gen. Charles Swannack Jr., commander of the 82nd Airborne told reporters.

In the rush to ramp up the Iraqi security presence, many of these forces are getting as little as three weeks of training, raising concerns about their readiness.

``It was a way of getting more people on the street doing things,'' Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, responding to recent questions about the pace of security force training.

Retreating is apparently among those things.

Recently, when U.S. troops had to adjust their position in the central Iraq town of Samara, guerrilla fighters overran the position, forcing Iraqi civil defense troops to bolt and American troops to return.

A similar failure in Ramadi would force Pentagon planners to review their plan to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq from roughly 130,000 now to 100,000 by June.

Without at least improved security, the political process will stall, as will the occupation.

While visiting London, Bush said he was open to reconsidering the Pentagon's downsizing plan.

^The Shiite factor

On the political side of the equation, Iraq's Shiites, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, hold most of the trump cards.

This was evident in the formulation of Plan C.

Among the most important changes in the new strategy was allowing Iraqis to hold elections and take full sovereignty before writing a constitution.

This request that bordered on a demand came from the Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most powerful Shiite religious leader in Iraq.

By refusing to accept any Iraqi constitution written before a return of sovereignty, the influential cleric effectively doomed Bremer's plan months ago by creating what came to be known within policy circles as the ``Sistani logjam.''

In other words, the political process goes nowhere until Sistani says it does.

Under the current program, the U.S.-led civilian authority in Iraq is scheduled to dissolve July 1, as soon as a new provisional Iraqi government is elected through a quasi-democratic process.

The potential problem with transferring authority Sistani's way is that it all but eliminates the United States from the constitutional process, leaving what promises to be a Shiite-dominated government in firm control of creating the document that will chart Iraq's political future.

The fear is that the Shiites could write a constitution based heavily on Islamic, rather than democratic principles, and marginalize rival ethnic groups, most notably the Sunnis, who staffed Saddam Hussein's brutal regime. That could lead to civil war.

``The question is not whether the Shia (Shiites) will run the government. It's which Shia - the clerics or the secular Shia,'' said Marina Ottaway, an expert on democracy and author of a policy brief incorporated into Plan C.

``We really don't know what is happening behind the scenes,'' she said. ``We really don't have an assessment of what the Shia really want. They play their cards very close to the vest.''

The Iraqis are supposed to complete their constitution by March 2005.