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Signs of conflict over new plan, predictions of disaster if it fails

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Even the most enthusiastic supporters of President Bush’s new plan to pacify Baghdad were using phrases such as: ‘‘If it succeeds’’ and ‘‘If the Iraqi government lives up to promises.’’
    Analysts were predicting extreme bloodshed and a catastrophe if the strategy fails.
    There were signs of conflict over the new approach almost immediately as the Iraqi government spokesman promptly asserted Baghdad’s right to demand changes in the plan laid out by the American leader.
    In contrast to hedged assessments Thursday by Bush administration officials, earlier American thrusts to cleanse the capital of Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen were launched with ambitious predictions of success. All failed to bring about lasting change.
    ‘‘The progress will be steady toward a goal that has clearly been defined,’’ Bush predicted in June a day before the announcement of Operation Together Forward, the highly touted crackdown that was to have included tens of thousands of Iraqi and American forces.
    Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, then one month in office, declared his forces would show ‘‘no mercy’’ to terrorists.
    ‘‘The terrorists cannot face such power,’’ Iraqi army Brig. Jalil Khalaf said at the time.
    Four months later, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell, the main U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the drive against sectarian violence had not delivered the desired results.
    ‘‘Operation Together Forward has made a difference in the focus areas but has not met our overall expectations in sustaining a reduction in the level of violence,’’ Caldwell said, declaring that ‘‘the violence is indeed disheartening.’’
    With that difficult admission of failure fresh in mind, administration officials did not even give a name to the new U.S.-Iraqi bid to scour Baghdad neighborhoods clean of Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen.
    And they spoke with extreme caution of a plan that will see an additional 21,500 American troops sent to Iraq.
    ‘‘If this strategy is successful, over time we will see a lessening of violence in Baghdad,’’ Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said, standing at the side of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington.
    ‘‘It’s going to take a little time, and we will probably have a better view a couple of months from now in terms of whether we are making headway in terms of getting better control of Baghdad,’’ Gates said.
    Rice, alluding to al-Maliki’s record of broken promises, was equally cautious.
    ‘‘They haven’t performed in the past. And so the president (Bush) is absolutely right. And we have all been saying to them, ’You have to perform.’’’ Rice said, revealing that her coming trip to the Mideast did not include a Baghdad stop.
    ‘‘I thought it was important to have the Maliki government have a little time now to make its plan work,’’ she said.
    Their caution was well-founded. Within hours the al-Maliki government already was sounding less solidly in the Bush camp.
    ‘‘The Iraqi point of view was taken concerning this plan, and that is good and positive thing. We believe that (the Bush program) has good positive points, and we will tell the American administration to amend any point that we feel is not suitable,’’ government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
    Then there was Iran, the Shiite theocracy with which Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has increasing links, to the chagrin of the Bush administration. In his speech, Bush said, ‘‘We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria.’’
    In the dark hours as the president spoke, U.S. troops raided an Iranian government building in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, detained six Iranians and took away computers and documents.
    But al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, voiced Iraqi displeasure with the operation against the Iranians, and suggested diplomacy to ease U.S.-Iranian tensions would be helpful — an option rejected by Bush.
    ‘‘Sometimes we pay the price for the tension in relations between Iran and the United States and Syria, therefore it is in our interest ... that these relations improve,’’ he said.
    Thus the first day of the new plan for reversing fortunes in Iraq, nearly four years into the war, stripped the bandages off the open sores in the Baghdad-Washington relationship and cast a shadow over the likelihood of success in the new joint venture to curb the sectarian war.
    So what if it fails?
    ‘‘The situation will deteriorate in a very serious and catastrophic way and the Iraqi people will pay the highest price,’’ said Nabil Salim, a political science professor at Baghdad University.
    A retired U.S. Army colonel, who was an adviser to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, said the new plan would only deepen the conflict and strengthen the hand of neighboring Iran.
    ‘‘The Shiite militias will welcome our assault and treat this as an opportunity to mobilize the entire Shiite population against us. Iran stands to benefit most as it has thus far by seeing an eventual Shiite dictatorship emerge in Baghdad,’’ retired Col. Douglas Macgregor said in response to an e-mail query.
    But dismal forecasts were leavened — to a degree — by the minimally more upbeat assessment of Steven Biddle, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow on defense policy.
    ‘‘There are some positive elements in this and I do think, on balance, the new strategy improves the odds of success relative to what they were before. I just don’t think it improves them all that much.’’
    ———
    Steven R. Hurst is the AP bureau chief in Baghdad.

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