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July 19, 2006

Bush's Double Game on an Iraq Withdrawal Timetable

by Gareth Porter

Caught between the need to explore a possible diplomatic way out of an otherwise hopeless mess in Iraq and the domestic political need to keep the Democrats on the defensive, U.S. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are playing a double game on the issue of a timetable for withdrawal.

For many months, the Bush White House has been attacking some Democrats in Congress for calling for a timetable for troop withdrawal from Iraq. Cheney condemned such proposals in a CNN interview June 22 as "the worst possible thing we could do," and portrayed them as "validating the theory that the Americans don't have the stomach for this fight."

But for the past six months, the Bush administration has been secretly pursuing peace negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, in which it has explicitly accepted the principle that an eventual peace agreement will include a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

The double game began when U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced last November that he was prepared to open negotiations with the Sunni insurgents, to whom he referred as "nationalists." That was just a few days after the spokesman for the U.S. military command in Iraq said its objective was no longer to "defeat" the insurgents, as distinct from foreign terrorist groups.

About six weeks later, Khalilzad began meeting with leaders of the insurgent groups, according to an insurgent leader interviewed by the London – based Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. In the interview, published May 3, the insurgent leader revealed that representatives of more than 10 armed organizations met with Khalilzad on seven occasions between Jan. 16 and the end of February.

The focus of the talks, according to the insurgent leader's account, was U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He said the insurgents gave Khalilzad a draft memorandum of understanding on a settlement. He did not reveal the contents of the document, but the Associated Press, citing insurgent and government officials, reported June 28 that 11 insurgent groups had offered to halt all attacks in return for a two-year timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

Khalilzad promised to get back to them with a U.S. response before the new government had been formed, according to the insurgent's account, but the Sunnis never heard from him again, and informed the U.S. embassy on April 20 that they were breaking off the talks.

Khalilzad's failure to respond suggests the White House was not yet prepared to have the administration take direct responsibility for a settlement involving a timetable for withdrawal. But that did not mean it was unwilling to participate in a process under which the Iraqi government would officially take responsibility for such a settlement.

Sometime in early 2006, according to an aide to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, seven Sunni insurgent groups – all of which had been among the organizations that met with Khalilzad – began meeting with the president, a Kurd who had indicated his willingness to negotiate with the insurgents the previous November. Beginning sometime in April, the U.S. embassy joined in the meetings with the insurgency, as Talabani revealed and the U.S. embassy confirmed to the media on May 1.

The central issue in these negotiations was a timetable for U.S. withdrawal, according to a representative of one of the seven groups, the Islamic National Front for Liberation of Iraq. Nevertheless, the negotiations made significant progress. Talabani told the London Times June 23 that the insurgent groups had communicated through an intermediary that they were prepared to finalize an agreement with the United States and Iraq.

This is where the "national reconciliation plan" of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki entered the picture. The first draft of the plan, which was circulated to members of the Iraqi parliament the week of June 18, incorporated the central elements of the peace settlement that had been discussed in the three-way negotiations. Among these was agreement on an explicit timetable for troop withdrawal that would take into account the completion of the process of training Iraqi security forces.

The London Times, which obtained a copy of that first draft, reported June 23 that it said, "We must agree on a time schedule to pull out the troops from Iraq, while at the same time building up the Iraqi forces that will guarantee Iraqi security, and this must be supported by a United Nations Security Council decision."

The sentence about the need for a withdrawal timetable was removed from the final version of the document made public on June 25, or watered down beyond recognition – reportedly because of opposition by militant Shi'ite party leaders.

Nevertheless, senior U.S. officials in Baghdad were dropping clear hints that the United States would support negotiation of a peace agreement based on the points that had been dropped from the original draft.

Khalilzad revealed in an interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius published June 28 that Gen. George Casey, the U.S. military commander in Iraq, was about to meet with Prime Minister Maliki to form a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee to decide on "the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the conditions related to a road map for an ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops."

Khalilzad told Ignatius that there was no "automatic timetable for withdrawal" – an artfully ambiguous formula that should be interpreted in light of the interview which another senior U.S. official gave to Newsweek and the London Times on June 24 on condition that he be identified as a "senior coalition military official."

The official refused to rule out the idea of a timetable for withdrawal, suggesting that "a date" was "the sort of assurance that [the Sunnis] are looking for." He went on to state that, "if men of good will sit down together and exchange ideas [about withdrawal], which might be defined either by a timetable or by … sets of conditions, there must be a capacity to find common ground."

The language in Maliki's first draft, which U.S. officials themselves helped negotiate, appears to be just the kind of common ground Khalilzad and the "senior coalition military official" – almost certainly Gen. Casey himself – had in mind.

It may be that Khalilzad and Casey are merely aiming to keep the insurgents interested in a peace agreement while keeping such an agreement just out of reach. But the evidence suggests that Bush has agreed to position the administration for an eventual peace agreement with the insurgents if that turns out to be necessary to avoid a disaster in Iraq.

Whatever the calculation behind the diplomatic acceptance of a withdrawal timetable, Bush and Cheney are clearly determined to continue their attack on Democrats who call for a timetable for withdrawal as playing into the hands of the terrorists – especially with the congressional election approaching.

Bush's double game has worked because the Democrats have failed to make the key point that a withdrawal timetable is indispensable to a peace settlement with the Sunnis, and that Bush has been acting on the basis of that reality, even as he argues the exact opposite when the Democrats support it.

The reason for that signal failure is that the Democrats' foreign policy leaders have not made the necessity for a diplomatic solution to the war central to their position. That turns out to be a serious weakness not only on substantive policy but on the politics of national security as well.

(Inter Press Service)


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  • Gareth Porter is a historian. His latest book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press).

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