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One last push, right over the cliff.

Okay, by now I'm sure you've heard about this article in the British Guardian newspaper:

President George Bush has told senior advisers that the US and its allies must make "a last big push" to win the war in Iraq and that instead of beginning a troop withdrawal next year, he may increase US forces by up to 20,000 soldiers, according to sources familiar with the administration's internal deliberations.

Mr Bush's refusal to give ground, coming in the teeth of growing calls in the US and Britain for a radical rethink or a swift exit, is having a decisive impact on the policy review being conducted by the Iraq Study Group chaired by Bush family loyalist James Baker, the sources said.

Although I guess it's news (however unsurprising) that Dubya prefers this option to admitting he's screwed Iraq up beyond repair, the emergence of the "one last push" concept was actually first reported a week ago by McClatchy News — I posted about it here last Thursday, and Laura Rozen cited a more detailed version of the proposal taking shape. But that's nothing compared to what Laura reveals in a Los Angeles Times op-ed today:

This past Veterans Day weekend … almost the entire Bush national security team gathered for an unpublicized two-day meeting. The topic: Iraq. The purpose of the meeting was to come up with a consensus position on a new path forward. Among those attending were President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor Stephen Hadley, outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

. . . Participants were asked to consider whether the U.S. could really afford to keep fighting both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias — or whether it should instead focus its efforts on combating the Sunni insurgency exclusively, and even help empower the Shiites against the Sunnis.

To do so would be a reversal of Washington's strategy over the last two years of trying to coax the Sunnis into the political process, an effort led by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. . . It's the path of least resistance, according to its supporters, and it could help accelerate one side actually winning Iraq's sectarian conflict, thereby shortening the conflict, while reducing some of the critical security concerns driving Shiites to mobilize their own militias in the first place.

With only a bit of gallows humor, I called this option "probably the closest thing to a humanitarian gesture the U.S. can make at this point" a year and a half ago. And like Laura, I see it matching up with a number of other straws in the wind — the rumored imminent departure of Khalilzad, the upcoming changes in the Iraqi cabinet (which I guessed might be increase the presence of Shiite party loyalists), and of course the general desperation of the situation in Iraq and the Shiites' demonstrated refusal to compromise on sharing power.

What's really intriguing is that it also seems to coincide with hints from Iran about a continued U.S. presence in Iraq not being such a problem for them, at least in the short term. (Like the American neocons/hawks they hoodwinked through Ahmad Chalabi into invading Iraq, the Iranians may have realized that toppling Saddam Hussein was a "catastrophic success.")

Just to be clear, the shape of the deal seems to be this: The U.S., Iran, and the Shiite-led government in Iraq all recognize that the situation there is dire, and there's not much room for playing games any more. In exchange for at least a nominal diminishing of gangster-cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's power (perhaps by taking away some of his faction's ministries), the U.S. will send more troops to try to contain violence in Baghdad — even if this means boosting the clout of the SCIRI party (which is just as brutally theocratic and even more explicitly backed by Iran than Sadr's Mahdi Army, but with which the U.S. has oddly seen as being more amenable to cutting deals).

It's almost unthinkable that a White House where Dick Cheney still lurks would be willing to strike a bargain of any kind with Iran's government — at least not without thinking they have some kind of laughable brilliant double-cross strategy waiting in the wings — but that's what the tea leaves seem to be indicating at the moment.