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October 18, 2006

Iraqi Endgame Approaching, Bush Ready or Not

by Jim Lobe

If Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki were inclined to bet his life on President George W. Bush's latest assurances that there will be no timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, he should probably give it a second thought.

While Bush, true to his self-image as an uncommonly firm leader in the mold of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, is undoubtedly sincere in his determination to press ahead, political circumstances – not to mention the accelerating slide into an appalling civil war in Iraq – are clearly conspiring against him.

The signs of eroding support for Bush's "stay-the-course" strategy are virtually everywhere in Washington, where senior Republicans, such as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, are moving into open revolt against what they see as a rapidly deteriorating situation and Bush's bullheadedness in still believing that Iraq will somehow become a model for democratic transformation in the Middle East.

The increasingly likely prospect of the Democrats recapturing the House of Representatives, and possibly even the Senate, too, after the Nov. 7 midterm elections should also spur second thoughts on Maliki's part.

While ever fearful of being tagged as "weak" on terrorism, it appears a strong majority of Democrats currently favor a yearlong timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. That position, if anything, is winning them increased popular support and is one they may well be able to effectively impose on Bush when Congress, which controls the government's purse strings, reconvenes in January.

Similar auguries are visible in London, Washington's closest ally in the "global war on terror" and the biggest contributor of troops by far to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

In a lengthy newspaper interview last week, Britain's new army chief, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, echoed the arguments made over the past year by the Democratic Party's most prominent advocate of a swift withdrawal, Rep. John Murtha.

Britain should "get ourselves out some time soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems [in Iraq]," he told the Daily Mail, adding that the best that could be hoped for now was something less than the kind of liberal democracy envisaged by both Bush and Blair.

Dannatt's views, according to a column by a former senior instructor at the Royal Military Academy and director of the Center for Foreign Policy Analysis, Paul Moorcraft, reflect the thinking of the "British military establishment."

The fact that Moorcraft's column was published Monday in the staunchly pro-Bush Washington Times adds to the impression here that even right-wing Republicans, despite their continued attacks on "Defeatocrats" for wanting to "cut and run," have reached a "tipping point" on the war.

Indeed, the Times' front page Monday featured an article contrasting the optimistic assessments given by Washington's top commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, earlier this year to his most recent briefings here earlier this month, particularly about the ability of the Iraqi security forces to take the place of U.S. troops in any reasonable amount of time – Bush's central condition for a gradual U.S. withdrawal.

The article noted that Casey had predicted early this year that he might be able to reduce U.S. troops levels from 130,000 by as much as 30,000 by the end of this year. But Washington has actually increased troops to over 140,000 in recent months, a level that U.S. Army chief Peter Schoomaker said last week may have to be sustained through 2010, an estimate that provoked real panic among Republican lawmakers who are ever more aware that the war is the single biggest negative they have to overcome to win reelection.

The recent increase in U.S. troops was due above all to the increased violence in Baghdad, where the monthly death toll, as recorded by Iraq's Health Ministry, has risen steadily from over around 1,400 earlier this summer to more than 2,600 in September.

By increasing the U.S. and Iraqi troop presence in the capital, U.S. planners had hoped that the violence could be quickly contained, but that assumption has not been borne out.

"The U.S. military had a two-stage program for security in Baghdad," Juan Cole, an Iraq specialist at the University of Michigan, told an interviewer on U.S. public television Monday. "They were going to go in and make sweeps of the Sunni Arab districts and cut down on the guerrilla violence against the Shi'ites, and then they were going to use that as an argument to the Shi'ites that 'OK, now you have to give up your militias.'"

"But this battle for Baghdad has already been going on since August, and there has been not only no reduction in attacks … [but] the attacks have gone up! We've got 50, 60, 70 bodies showing up every day in Baghdad, bullets behind the ears," said Cole, who is calling for a "phased withdrawal of U.S. troops."

Nor is the violence limited to Baghdad or the Sunni insurgent stronghold of al-Anbar province. Over the weekend, a series of reprisal killings by Shi'ites and Sunnis left over 100 dead in and around Balad, about 50 mi. north of Baghdad, in an area where U.S. troops turned over security to their Iraqi counterparts just last month.

While most of the violence is now sectarian, U.S. casualties have also been spiking, particularly since August when more troops were sent to help pacify Baghdad. Sixty-three U.S. troops were killed in August; that rose to 74 in September. Nearly 60 have been killed in the first half of October, putting the month on track to be the deadliest in almost two years and adding to the pressure to bring the troops home.

All of these developments have created panic among the war's supporters, particularly neoconservatives who were most enthusiastic about invading Iraq. In a cover article in this week's Weekly Standard, in which he warned, contrary to some critics, that "exiting Iraq … would fan the flames of jihadism," Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) conceded that a "consensus is growing in Washington" on both the Right and the Left in favor of a "rapid departure."

At the same time, the neoconservative New York Sun reported last week that the so-called Iraq Study Group (ISG), a blue-ribbon task force created last spring by Congress to develop a bipartisan strategy on Iraq, was considering four basic options, two of which, including a "stay-the-course" strategy and an immediate withdrawal, had been ruled out by its members.

Of the two left, according to the Sun account, one, "Stability First," calls for continuing efforts to stabilize Baghdad, major new initiatives to coax Sunni insurgents into the political process, and a regional effort, including Iran and Syria – with which the administration has refused so far to deal directly – to cut off arms supplies to militias and help reduce the violence.

The second option, called "Redeploy and Contain," appears similar to a plan floated last year by the Center for American Progress and subsequently endorsed by most Democratic lawmakers. It calls for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases outside Iraq from which they could strike against terrorist targets in Iraq or elsewhere in the region.

The fact that the ISG's co-chair is former secretary of state and Bush family consiglieri James Baker, with whom Bush reportedly talks on a regular basis, is likely to give the final report, due out early next year, serious heft, particularly for a Congress, a military, and top Republican strategists that are already desperate for a face-saving exit strategy, timetable included.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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