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President Bush fights so publicly to maintain his strategy in Iraq that it's easy to miss it when the strategy shifts. That may be exactly what's happening in recent days. Back in January, the president announced an increase in U.S. troops. The plan was to give the central government an opportunity to unite warring factions. A series of recent reports says that did not happen, which may explain why the White House is trying something else.
Here's NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Earlier this week, when President Bush made a lightning visit to Iraq, he bypassed Baghdad and instead went to a heavily fortified air base in Anbar province, where he met with local tribal sheiks who have been cooperating with the U.S. forces to drive Islamic extremists out of the province.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: In Anbar, you're seeing first hand the dramatic difference that can come when the Iraqis are more secure. In other words, you're seeing success.
NORTHAM: With the failure of the Iraqi government to unite, the White House is now pinning its hopes for Iraq on what's happening in Anbar. Instead of trying to bring about national political reconciliation, the Bush administration is slowly moving the goal posts, said Jon Alterman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): What we may be seeing here is an imperceptible 180-degree turn in U.S. policy, moving from this incredible concentration on the Green Zone and the national government, and more on local governments. The president won't say we're giving up on the national government, but if you pay attention to the actions instead of the words, the investments will be in the periphery rather than in the center.
NORTHAM: The White House is considering increasing aid to Anbar province. The U.S. has already pumped more than $120 million into the area, working with local sheikhs and tribal leaders to help drive out al-Qaida in Mesopotamia from Anbar, and building up the local security forces there.
And that effort has paid off. A year ago, Anbar was considered all but lost to al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and other Sunni extremists. Now violence has lessened, and the U.S. is touting Anbar as a success story.
But Alterman says that might be fleeting because the Sunnis and the U.S. do not share the same strategic interests for Iraq. And, Alterman says, the Sunnis are cooperating with the U.S. out of pure self-interest.
Mr. ALTERMAN: It's easier to rent people's loyalties in Anbar than it is to buy them. And what we may be doing is planting the seeds for an incredibly vicious civil war with people who are better armed and better trained than they would have been beforehand.
NORTHAM: Wayne White, the head of the State Department's Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005, says the U.S. runs the risk that the Sunnis could turn on American troops.
Mr. WAYNE WHITE (State Department): The people who are our new best friends, and who are helping us in Sunni Arab areas, are the most virulently anti-occupation in the country. And so once al-Qaida has been finished off, we're next on their list.
NORTHAM: White says the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is worried that the Sunnis could also turn on them.
Still, the U.S. is taking the sliver of hope in Anbar and trying to transfer it to other regions of Iraq, including Shiite areas.
Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at the National Defense University, says the central government is so inept and corrupt that this local plan could stand a chance of working.
Dr. JUDITH YAPHE (National Defense University): If the Sunnis were won over by their self-interest, maybe Shia parties could as well. One would think that the pattern could work but it would take bigger investment and resources.
NORTHAM: And Congress will have to decide if that investment is worth it. Wayne White says trying to replicate what's happening in Anbar throughout Iraq will most likely create fiefdoms run by warlords, which in turn would make it extremely difficult to weave together broad political reconciliation. White says the administration is not using a long-term strategy.
Mr. WHITE: The president either doesn't realize or doesn't care that it's a short-term success story with a boomerang at the end, and will use it shamelessly in order to defend pretty much staying on the current course.
NORTHAM: And it will be up to General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to convince Congress that there has been real progress, and will most likely use Anbar as an example of that.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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