The proposal, put forward by the State Department as part of a crash White House review of Iraq policy, follows an assessment that the ambitious U.S. outreach to Sunni dissidents has failed. U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that their reconciliation efforts may even have backfired, alienating the Shiite majority and leaving the United States vulnerable to having no allies in Iraq, according to sources familiar with the State Department proposal.
Some insiders call the proposal the "80 percent" solution, a term that makes other parties to the White House policy review cringe. Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.
Opponents of the proposal cite three dangers. Without reconciliation, military commanders fear that U.S. troops would be fighting the symptoms of Sunni insurgency without any prospect of getting at the causes behind it -- notably the marginalization of the once-powerful minority. U.S. troops would be left fighting in a political vacuum, not a formula for either long-term stabilization or reducing attacks on American targets.
A second danger is that the United States could appear to be taking sides in the escalating sectarian strife. The proposal would encourage Iraqis to continue reconciliation efforts. But without U.S. urging, outreach could easily stall or even atrophy, deepening sectarian tensions, U.S. sources say.
A decision to step back from reconciliation efforts would also be highly controversial among America's closest allies in the region, which are all Sunni governments. Sunni leaders in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikdoms have been pressuring the United States to ensure that their brethren are included in Iraq's power structure and economy.
In short, it's a stupid plan. Backing the Shia won't produce a resolution to the conflict. Granted, the reconciliation effort has not worked to the degree that had been hoped when we first began attempting to incorporate Sunni groups into the political process. And without a doubt, it was the Sunnis who initially rejected the political process entirely, embracing a rebellion and Al Qaeda. But the fact remains that Iraq cannot be unified unless the Sunnis are incorporated into the political process, for all the reasons cited above, and because we should not be seen as aiding and abetting the ethnic cleansing and the division of Iraq on sectarian lines. Above all that, I'm not even sure what this plan is supposed to accomplish. If we leave Iraq with the Shiites in the process of driving the Sunnis out of central and southern Iraq, with Iraq splitting along sectarian lines, would that even look like the sort of "victory" that would allow us to bring our troops home? No, it would not. This plan won't work, and it would further destroy our image in the eyes of the Muslim world (as unbelievable as that sounds.) If we are bound to leave one way or the other, it is not up to us to pick sides. The governments of the nations of the Middle East will intervene and do that quite thoroughly for us.
UPDATE: Remember Kirkuk? Towards the beginning of the occupation the concern was whether the Kurds would permit Kirkuk to remain part of Iraq, or would claim it as part of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. So far they have been very, very patient. But this article in The Guardian says Kurdish patience may be running out. Ethnic divisions have not resulted in the type of violence seen in other parts of Iraq, but thanks to Saddam's "Arabization" plan, the once largely Kurdish city is now divided between Kurds, Arabs and Turkommen and although the Kurds have tried to be somewhat even-handed in the redistribution of property taken from Kurds driven out of the city by Saddam, tension still exists between the various ethnic groups (as Packer details in his book "The Assassins' Gate.")
UPDATE II: Kevin Drum doesn't like the plan either:
It's hard to believe that anyone is taking this seriously. If reconciliation with the Sunni minority is impossible — and it probably is — then we should withdraw and let the Shiite majority take over. The result would be bloody, but at least we wouldn't be involved. The alternative being mooted here would put us directly on the Shiite side, and we'd be viewed as actively cooperating with a massacre of the Sunni minority no matter how hard we protested otherwise. It's hard to imagine a more disastrous end to a disastrous war.
For that reason, I suspect this proposal will be adopted.
I would like to think he's wrong about that last part, but we all know better.
UPDATE III: Fred Kaplan, talking about what we can do if the Iraqi government collapses, also thinks backing the Shiites is a terrible idea:
Earlier this year, when I interviewed some colonels and generals about U.S. military options in the event of civil war, they all said they couldn't imagine any president going this route. And yet the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have recently quoted U.S. officials floating the notion of abandoning the quest for national reconciliation and, instead, joining the civil war on the side of the Shiites. It's unclear how high these officials are (in both senses of the word). What is clear is that it's a terrible idea. There's no better way to alienate the region's Sunni governments, most of which happen to be allies of sorts (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and so forth), or to widen the conflict, perhaps beyond Iraq's borders. It's also hard to believe that many U.S. officials or politicians would tolerate such a move (though who knows, given what they've tolerated so far).