As President Bush readies a new strategy for Iraq, some experts in Washington are looking beyond the question of US troop levels to what might happen if worst-case scenarios come true. Call it Plan B: How the United States might handle Iraq's partition.
It may still be possible to hold Iraq together, many of these critics believe. A surge in American military strength might help. But the hour is late – and a lack of contingency planning on the part of US officials may be one reason the situation has become so dire.
"If I was working for George Bush, I would want somebody to be thinking hard about this, sort of preparing the groundwork," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The US might need actively to aid Iraqis in relocating to parts of the country where they feel safer, says Mr. O'Hanlon. This sort of resettlement assistance wouldn't be unprecedented, he notes. The US did it in Bosnia.
Such a policy would perhaps preempt the violent Balkans-style ethnic cleansing that is already occurring in Iraq, O'Hanlon says. Sectarian strife is displacing 100,000 Iraqis a month.
"One-third to one-quarter of the ethnic cleansing that might occur [in Iraq] has occurred," says O'Hanlon.
Of course, to many US officials such a policy would be anathema. Mr. Bush has long insisted that a unified, democratic Iraq is one of his goals – not an Iraq separated into sectarian regions.
It has been widely reported that the new "way forward" Bush is expected to announce next week will include a substantial surge in US forces, designed to bring stability to violence-torn parts of the country.
Such an increase might allow reconstruction aid to begin to have a real effect in Baghdad and elsewhere, improving the daily life of Iraqis and strengthening the shaky central government, according to an influential report on the subject co-authored by Frederick Kagan, a military historian at American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"Victory in Iraq is still possible at an acceptable level of effort," says a summary of the AEI study.
But events in Iraq now may be running at a speed that outpaces the US ability to respond. Bush has mulled over his options for weeks, while sectarian violence rises and the political partition of the country continues apace, says Vali Nasr, an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The attempt to form a unity government has completely failed, says Mr. Nasr. Absent viable political plans, power is determined by the violence of militia in the street.
"The carnival of Saddam's execution is handwriting on the wall about how deeply divided this society is," he says.
Will the country's political divide be followed by a physical one? Possibly. Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has long advocated establishing Iraq as a loose federation, consisting of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regions, and a Baghdad that belongs to all.
Other experts, including Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, have been increasingly vocal in calling for the US to help Iraqis resettle in areas of safety.
"We've got to provide them the means, the protection, and the funds to set up a new life," said Mr. Gelb in a recent National Public Radio interview. "We owe them that."
Resettled refugees might, in the end, blame America for their plight. The US could be accused of abetting ethnic cleansing. All plausible, says O'Hanlon of Brookings – but the problem is, the ethnic cleansing is happening anyway. The question, therefore, is really a humanitarian one: How to save lives?
In a recent piece titled "A Bosnia Option for Iraq," published in the journal American Interest and co-authored with Edward Joseph, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, O'Hanlon proposes a "soft partition" of Iraq.
The war in Bosnia ended only after 200,000 civilians died and half the country's population had fled their homes, says the article. Ethnic relocation may be distasteful, but with Sunni insurgents and Shiite death squads now attacking even hospitals and schools, what is the alternative?
"If US and Iraqi forces cannot protect civilians, there is little moral dilemma about facilitating their movement to safer areas," says the article.
The Iraqi government would have to offer housing and jobs for those resettled, as well as protection while moving, according to the article. Government property commissions could help Sunnis and Shiites swap homes.
The key to making the relocation work might be a division of oil money. It should be split a number of ways, the article says, with individuals, provinces, and the overall government receiving allocations.
"The Bosnia option has a much higher chance of success than anything resembling current strategy ... although I can still see the case for one last big push [with more US troops]," says O'Hanlon.
Other experts say that a surge in troops will serve a purpose only if tied to a comprehensive approach of bringing stability and security to Iraq.
The problem now is not just troop levels or stability in Baghdad, says Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a new study.
"The 'threat' from the insurgency and militias is only part of the problem," writes Mr. Cordesman. "Iraq's central government is weak and the nation is steadily dividing into sectarian and ethnically controlled areas."
Thus any new military effort should be accompanied by a further push to create incentives for peaceful coexistence, according to Cordesman – or peaceful separation where there is not a credible alternative. The US should "provide aid to relocation when this is the only option," writes the CSIS scholar.