Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- If we were allied with an Iraqi government that, however weak, was truly national -- cross-confessional and dedicated to fighting a two-front war against Baathist insurgents and Shiite militias -- a surge of American troops, together with a change of counterinsurgency strategy, would have a good chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, the Iraqi political process has given us Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite coalition.

Its beginning was inauspicious. Months of wrangling produced a coalition of the three major Shiite religious parties, including that of Moqtada al-Sadr. Given Maliki's legitimacy as the first democratically elected leader of Iraq, however, he was owed a grace period of, say, six months to show whether he could indeed act as a national leader.

By November, his six months were up and the verdict was clear: He could not. His government is hopelessly sectarian. It protects Sadr, as we saw dramatically when Maliki ordered the lifting of U.S. barricades set up around Sadr City in search of a notorious death squad leader. It is enmeshed with Iran, as we saw when Maliki's government forced us to release Iranian agents found in the compound of one of his coalition partners.

The Saddam hanging did not change anything, but it did illuminate the deeply sectarian nature of this government. If it were my choice, I would not ``surge'' American troops in defense of such a government. I would not trust it to deliver its promises. Lt. Gen. David Petraeus thinks otherwise. Petraeus, who will be leading our forces in Iraq, has not only served two and a half years there, but has also literally written the book on counterinsurgency. He believes that with an augmentation of U.S. troops, a change of tactics and the support of three additional Iraqi brigades, he can pacify Baghdad.

Petraeus wants to change the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, at least in Baghdad, from simply hunting terrorists to securing neighborhoods. In other words, from search-and-destroy to stay-and-protect. He thinks that he can do this with only a modest increase of five American brigades.

I am confident that Petraeus knows what he's doing and that U.S. troops will acquit themselves admirably. I'm afraid the effort will fail, however, because the Maliki government will undermine it.

The administration view -- its hope -- is that, whatever Maliki's instincts, he can be forced to act in good faith by the prospect of the calamity that will befall him if he lets us down and we carry out our threat to leave. The problem with this logic is that it is contradicted by the president's simultaneous pledge not to leave ``before the job is done.''

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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