President Bush’s strategy in Iraq is now clear. And I don’t mean the five-point rehash of existing platitudes found in his recent “major” speech at the Army War College. I’m talking about the real, behind-the-scenes plan. In the battles for the Sunni town of Falluja and the Shiite cities south of Baghdad, the Bush administration has essentially capitulated—hoping to reduce, until the U.S. election is over, images of fighting, mayhem and U.S. blood streaming to the American public.

In Falluja, the U.S. military has withdrawn its forces, and the town is being run by anti-U.S. guerrillas and a former general from Saddam Hussein’s regime. Similarly, the United States has agreed to pull out most of its forces from towns in the south and allow the rebellious militias of Moktada al-Sadr to remain armed and intact. The U.S. military has also agreed to suspend its arrest warrant for al-Sadr (there is even talk of offering this “villain” or his supporters a place in the interim government, which will be instituted on June 30). This most recent Bush administration flip-flop is a far cry from earlier boasts to “kill or capture” al-Sadr and “destroy” his militia. In fact, in an implicit admission that a unified and democratic Iraq will never happen, the United States has elected to avoid the risk of disarming the many armies and militias all over the country.

Of course, for the long-term, this administration strategy does nothing to create a stable and peaceful Iraq. The plan is merely a short-term way to stanch the president’s hemorrhaging in polls at home and maximize his dimming chances for reelection. But then this invasion was always less about making life better for the Iraqis than doing so for the neo-conservatives who hijacked the U.S. government for their own pet overseas social engineering project.

There is a better and more honorable way for the Bush administration to extricate itself from the Iraqi quagmire soon enough for memories to fade before the U.S. November election, while at the same time giving Iraqis the best chance for peace and eventual prosperity. Such a strategy requires true and immediate self-determination for all factions in Iraq. Each locality could send a representative to a constitutional convention unattended by any member of the U.S. military or occupation authority. Thus, the convention would be representative of the views of Iraqi society. The delegates would not only negotiate the future governing structure of Iraq but also key issues such as the future distribution of oil revenues. Iraqis would then ratify by referendum what the convention produced. More than likely, the constitutional convention would produce some type of loose confederation—giving substantial autonomy to various groups, tribes or regions—or even three or more independent states.

The various Iraqi factions have retained their armed militias because they fear domination from other groups that might gain control of the governmental apparatus of a unified post-occupation Iraq. Such fears could cause a civil war. But the creation of a loose confederation or a partition should reduce such fears and lessen the chance of internecine conflict. Of course, there’s no guarantee peace has much hope after the Bush administration foolishly opened Pandora’s Box by removing the only thing holding this fractious, artificial country together—the dictator Saddam Hussein, who the U.S. once supported for years. But self-determination is the best remaining hope.

To those who say that such a “live and let live” agreement among Iraqi factions could not be reached, we need only look at the case of Sudan. The Islamic Sudanese government and the major Christian rebel group recently reached a peace agreement to decentralize power in the country to individual states, which would give the rebels effective control over the southern part of the country. Included in the arrangement is a referendum on secession to be held in six years in various parts of the country. The two factions also agreed to share oil revenues. Although the negotiated settlement of Sudan’s civil war isn’t perfect—it doesn’t include all factions in the country—the episode does show that decentralized governance among ethnic or religious groups can give armed combatants enough comfort to negotiate peace. Although the Sunnis oppressed the Kurds and Shia under Saddam’s rule, the bad blood between groups in Iraq is nowhere near the level of bitterness caused by the brutal Sudanese conflict (with more than 2 million casualties).

If the welfare of Iraqis was the paramount goal of U.S. leaders, U.S. policy in Iraq would be designed to avoid a similarly nasty civil war. Instead, the Bush administration’s politically-driven strategy of retaining a unified Iraqi government, while mollifying armed factions that will eventually try to gain control of it, is a recipe for just such a disaster.