Friday, November 10, 2006

First hints of an actual policy-change proposal: Crackdown on the militias in exchange for a withdrawal-start in 18 months

Al-Hayat assigned two Washington reporters to write about prospects for a changed US stance in Iraq, but the result is disappointing. They start us off with the point about "expectations of fundamental change" in Iraq policy, particularly because the new Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, is also a member of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, and also because of the pressure of the election-results. And the headline itself says "Bush willing to work with Congress", which would also be a change. But it is downhill from there.

The reporters note Bush has also been repeating his usual phrases about "central front in the war on terror"; "victory"; and so on, suggesting change isn't a sure thing, and reminding everyone of his presidential authority.

With that as preface, the reporters cite recent interview remarks with a senior US intelligence official who told them the Baker commission "won't necessarily be recommending what is best for Iraq or for the region, but rather what is best for America and its withdrawal with the least possible losses." And they said the official seemed reluctant to confirm already-leaked points relating to recommending talks with Syria and Iran. Not much there.

Then they talked to David Mack, former deputy assistant sec'y for mideast affairs, who was involved in the 2002 Iraq Future study in the State Department. But Mack couldn't tell them that much either. He talked about correcting errors, including reversing some of the excessive de-Baathfication measures. His main point was merely that Bush's personal influence will probably be diminished, and the gist of the new policy will likely come from the Baker commission.

Michael Rubin, a former Defence Department person, disagreed even with that. He said the last word still belongs to the president, or words to that effect.

The exasperated reader scrolls down and sees he has only one paragraph left. He grips the keyboard, white-knuckled. Yes! The journalist says they asked one other question of Mack, about the exact details of any withdrawal. Well, said Mack, Democrats and Republicans are both agreed that stability has to come first, before any thought of withdrawal. But probably there will be a gradual draw-down of troop levels in the two remaining years of the Bush administration. That's it.

Azzaman has been able to come up with a little more, in its Saturday edition by combining Washington with Baghdad reporting, and focusing on any likely immediate effects in Baghdad. Their story goes like this: Peter Pace, head of the joint chiefs of staff, said a group of generals is preparing a package of recommendations for Bush on changes to Iraq strategy following the Rumsfeld departure. The rest of what Pace said was argle-bargle, but the Azzaman team wasn't deterred by that. Talking to Iraqi politicians, they found that the Iraqi parties, particularly those with militias, have been meeting secretly for two days straight, trying to figure out what the Rumsfeld departure might mean for them. And one result, Azzaman says, has been an all-points order to the various militias to hide their weapons, limit the locations at which they appear publicly, and generally prepare for the possibility of surprise attacks. Switching back to Washington, the story quotes US sources as saying the changes could include "more pressure on the Iraqi government to disarm the militias", and that in exchange for that, there could be agreement on a "timetable for withdrawal". "And the sources didn't rule out that the withdrawal could begin within 18 months, or in other words prior to the end of the Bush administration. But the sources added that this issue could still be unresolved at the time of the next presidential election..." In other words, there is talk of a promise to start the withdrawal within 18 months, but that wouldnt necessarily mean that Bush's successor won't face issues respecting this. And it seems that at least part of the quid pro quo would be disarming the militias (or launching a US attack on them).

One point worth noting is that what Azzaman heard about a timetable for withdrawal starting within 18 months doesn't contradict what Al-Hayat has heard about a gradual draw-down in the coming two years. But it isn't clear what if anything this recommendation of the generals (if that is what it is) has to do with the Baker commission.


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