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Iraq war needs a Plan B Signs increase that security surge may unravel before it fully starts

President Bush may have a new plan for Iraq, but there are disturbing signs that it already could be unraveling. Two new problems became public over the weekend: a dicey reliance on Kurdish troops to help clear out Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Baghdad, and what amounts to continuing manipulation of the American military by the Iraqi government.

Such problems, and others already known, underscore a couple of points: There had better be a clock ticking on this new adventure, and there had better be a Plan B.

The behavior of Iraqi government leaders is the more troubling of the two problems. It is the Iraqi government -- the concept and the fact of it -- for which American troops are risking their lives. If that government won't commit to the new strategy Bush has laid out, there's no chance for success.

Indeed, one of Bush's most significant claims in his national address last week was that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had promised that long-sought, never-given cooperation.

Yet American officers express little confidence that al-Maliki, a Shiite, will grant U.S. troops authority to operate freely in Sadr City, a section of Baghdad that is home to the Mahdi army led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce and outspoken opponent of American presence in Iraq.

Al-Maliki relieved a key Sunni (but apparently impartial) brigade commander during joint attacks on Sunni insurgents in Baghdad, and replaced him with a Shiite commander. The Shiite general just named by al-Maliki as head of the Baghdad security drive is a vocal opponent of American oversight of Iraqi troops. Despite Bush's pronouncement, al-Maliki also apparently plans to retain the "decider" role in picking what troops go into which neighborhoods, especially Shiite neighborhoods.

It is telling that New York's Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who initially backed the war and most recently reacted cautiously to the new Bush plan, just returned from Iraq with a clear statement that there is little chance that plan can succeed -- a view reached after conversations with al-Maliki that left her with no confidence in his commitment to the new effort.

She now wants to cap American force levels in Iraq and start a phased withdrawal with a shifting of troops to Afghanistan to meet an expected spring Taliban offensive there.

The American hope of bringing Kurdish troops into Baghdad also holds great potential for conflict, but that problem at least was predictable. The Kurds, who inhabit northern Iraq, have largely kept out the conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis, a fight many of them rightly see as a civil war.

They are skeptical about being dragged into the middle of that war, and while their participation makes sense in the context of making the nation's problems a national issue, it could also widen and complicate the conflict. Their mission would be further complicated by the fact that they don't speak the same language as the Arabs of Iraq.

Bush's plan offered new elements, but a plan that cannot be executed is a plan that will fail -- another consequence of going into an optional war hastily, without having planned for its aftermath and with an institutional resistance to changing gears.

That is why this plan, if it must go through, urgently needs some kind of expiration date -- either a specific time period or a series of benchmarks by which officials can judge its success or failure.

That also mandates a backup plan, something this administration has conspicuously avoided -- or at least won't talk about -- thus far. Because sudden withdrawal of all troops would be calamitous for Iraq and the Middle East, and because the American people and our troops in Iraq should not again face unthinking or mistaken strategy and execution, someone needs to have some idea of what should happen and when.

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