The chatter is building up that a serious change in policy in Iraq is afoot. Supposedly, there is talk of an ultimatum to the Iraqi government to do various defined things or face undefined sanctions (this is an old John Paul Vann idea from South Vietnam), but there are also reasons to imagine that the Americans are preparing themselves to accept a break-up (see the Harpers' story), and Des Browne told the BBC today that British forces might be out in 12 months because "planning was under way to hand over to Iraqi security forces".
To quote Vann, "Damn, I'm an optimist. I think we can hang on longer than that!" More seriously, at the same time we saw the SCIRI-led Iraqi police being run out of Amara by the local Sadrists, who sealed the deal by destroying the police stations after seizing them. The last we heard, the Queen's Royal Hussars group was standing by in case the order came to retake the place. Given the strength of the local Mahdi Army - it was this lot who fought Camilla's Killers through August, 2004, and who mortared the QRH out of Abu Naji camp a couple of months ago - this would have been a very bloody business.
The Sadrists pulled something similar just down the road a day later, and some of their leaders are on record as boasting that the next objective is Basra. The entire incident was a demonstration of two things - the increasing Shia/Shia split between SCIRI and Dawa on one hand, and Sadr on the other, and the progressive loss of coalition control between Basra and Baghdad. The British security perimeter in the south is shrinking - the Sadrists used a supposed 800 men to storm Amara, a force the size of a battalion with better recruitment rates than most of ours. That kind of movement should have been spotted, if all the crap about drones was true.
Apparently the US government is considering eight options, these being as follows:
1. British out now.
2. Everyone out now.
3. Phased withdrawal.
4. Talk to Iran and Syria.
5. Remove Nuri al-Maliki in favour of a "strongman".
6. Break-up of Iraq.
7. Retreat to "Super Bases".
8. One last push.
Well, if those are your options... Close examination suggests that some of these options are actually double-counted. For example, 3 is only another way of saying 2, as it's more than one day's work to get from Baghdad to the Kuwaiti border, so any withdrawal will be in some sense phased. Even a British unilateral departure will involve at least a move back to Basra and Shaibah before the final evacuation. 1 won't solve the problem on its own, but it will require 4 if 2 isn't going to be immediately brought about. And a phased withdrawal, even more than a straight dash for the exits, will need coordination with the neighbouring states.
Further, talks alone won't solve anything. The ex-officers of the New-Old Iraqi Army and the Sadrist street kids are not controlled by a state-sponsor Dr Evil and cannot just be switched off. Talking to Iran and Syria is only useful if the discussions involve some course of action, like 1, 2, 3, 5 or 6. It's a necessary, not sufficient, condition. Speaking of 5, I see they are yet again parading the ragged corpse of Iyad Allawi's credibility through the streets, trying to make it look like it's alive. Look, the last time he had to deal with the Shia they ran him out of Najaf beating him with their shoes on live television. He's only still alive because he spends as much time in London as possible. And what is he meant to do?
There is, of course, always Saddam, although I suspect if it ever looks like he might be sprung the SCIRI will shoot him first. This is only partly a joke: see Nibras Kazimi on the strange case of the former Electricity Minister.
That brings us to option 6, the break-up of Iraq. I'd argue that it's already happening and we have little control over it, but anyway. If it looks like happening, 2 is top priority - the last thing we want is to have 140,000 troops in the middle of the break-up - and 4 is urgently necessary to consider how to limit the damage. Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have serious interests in Iraq, and could all become embroiled. After all, the Syrian army could get to Baghdad in three days, there being no-one on that particular route who would fight them, and park its tanks in Dora, where they might even be greeted with flowers, until/unless the SCIRI arrived to greet them with RPGs, car bombs, kitchen sinks etc (in that scenario, the Sadrists' position would be very ambiguous indeed).
7 is easily disposed of. Ever since 2003, every time casualties spike, George Bush has promised that the US Army is being pulled out of the cities to secure bases out in the desert. US lefties are obsessed by "permanent bases!" And, in fact, the US army did indeed move into big fortified camps on desert airfields. They can't do it again. And it's not cost-free - it's precisely living in land submarines that denies them useful intelligence and orientation. Check out this post (and Slate article) of Phil Carter's about the problems caused by living in the Balad "super base". Moving into them leaves the country and the population to the enemy. In the worst case scenario, they become insurgent magnets; without the Euphrates valley main supply route, they become so many besieged fortresses dependent on their capability to suppress mortar or rocket fire to keep the runways open, and their garrison's ability to keep the SAM template clear to prevent the planes being shot down on approach.
8 is frankly ridiculous - even if it is possible to improve the operational situation by a further effort, what is the strategic aim? With the "push" complete, we would just be facing the same list of options. And what would such a "push" look like? The only halfway sensible scenario is something as follows - we do X in order to get the mayhem down to a tolerable level, so we can then hand over to a stronger Iraqi government (i.e. option 2 or 3). But I can't see any kind of discrete operation in prospect that would do that.
The inclusion of option 8, though, does serve a purpose. If all the options were negative, the report would be rejected out of hand. Including 8 and 5, though, permits its authors to show that they have considered all options and that their recommendation is "sensible", "moderate", "reasonable" etc. Further, it makes all options short of 2 look like a happy mean and hence be more thinkable. I sense the formidable political abilities of James Baker at work here.