OBAMA'S TROOP WITHDRAWAL PLAN WINS SUPPORT
By Demetri Sevastopulo
Financial Times (London)
July 22, 2008 (updated Jul. 23)
Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, on Tuesday welcomed the “growing consensus” around a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
Speaking in Jordan following a two-day visit to Iraq, Mr. Obama stressed that Iraqi leaders were ready and willing to take responsibility for security. “The best way to support Iraqi sovereignty and to encourage the Iraqis to stand up is through the responsible redeployment of our combat brigades.”
Mr. Obama and John McCain, his Republican opponent, have amplified their rhetoric on Iraq in recent weeks as the steady improvement in security has shifted to debate to questions of when the U.S. should withdraw its troops.
Mr. Obama has vowed to withdraw U.S. combat forces within 16 months of becoming president. He gained momentum over the weekend when Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, appeared to back his plan in an interview with *Der Spiegel*. Mr. Maliki’s spokesman claimed the comments were misinterpreted, but then later said Iraq hoped U.S. troops could leave Iraq by the end of 2010, just eight months beyond the timeframe set by Mr Obama.
Speaking in Germany on Tuesday, Mr. Maliki appeared to provide more support for Mr. Obama, saying “Iraq has the foundation and is capable of taking the security situation into its own hands.”
“We can say with some pride that we’re in the position and capable -- with our police and army and with our professional level -- to achieve that,” Mr. Maliki was cited as saying by Bloomberg.
Mr. Obama has also benefited from an apparent U-turn by the Bush administration over Iraq policy. The White House last week announced that President George W. Bush had agreed with Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, on the need to include a “general time horizon” for removing U.S. troops in a security agreement being hammered out by both countries.
While the White House stresses that the goals would be “aspirational,” it suggested on Tuesday that the agreement could include possible dates for the U.S. to hand over control of certain provinces to the Iraqi security forces.
The combination of Mr. Maliki’s comments coupled with the White House shift, have forced Mr. McCain onto the back foot. The Arizona senator on Tuesday rejected suggestions that he had become the “odd man out.” He told CBS television that Mr. Maliki, General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, had all stressed that any troop reductions should be conditions-based.
Gen. Petraeus is next month expected to provide Mr. Bush with his recommendations for troop levels in Iraq before he moves to become head of U.S. Central Command, which broadens his responsibilities to oversee the war in Afghanistan.
“I will bring our troops home. I will bring them home in victory. I will not do what the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff said would be very dangerous,“ said Mr. McCain.
CONSENSUS MAY BE NEARING ON IRAQ PULLOUT
By John D. McKinnon, Yochi J. Dreazen, and Elizabeth Holmes
** Target Year of 2010 Gains Some Traction Among Principals as U.S. Looks Toward Afghanistan **
Wall Street Journal
July 23, 2008
Rapid developments in recent days are narrowing political differences over the way forward in Iraq and suggesting the outlines of a possible consensus on the coming end of U.S. combat involvement.
President George W. Bush's announcement late last week that he will agree to a "time horizon" for withdrawing U.S. combat troops was the first sign of coalescing. In the days that followed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly endorsed a target date for withdrawal -- the end of 2010, roughly in line with the mid-2010 time frame advocated by Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic presidential candidate.
Top U.S. commanders also have been increasingly public about their desire to accelerate the redeployment of U.S. forces out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, where security needs are now viewed as more critical.
Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview that he needs at least three more brigades, or roughly 10,000 military personnel. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made clear that it is almost impossible to send those troops until more U.S. forces leave Iraq.
A shift could be coming soon. U.S. commanders say that with security continuing to improve across Iraq, they may be able to withdraw one and possibly two brigades -- between 3,500 and 7,000 troops -- by the end of the year. The Pentagon would be able to cancel the planned deployment of at least one brigade slated to come to Iraq and shift it to Afghanistan.
Even as the administration begins to relax its hard line in response to security gains in Iraq, Sen. Obama, a longtime critic of Mr. Bush's policies, has also been shifting toward the center. In a statement Monday during his Middle East trip and again in a news conference on Tuesday in Jordan, Sen. Obama moved somewhat closer rhetorically to the administration.
He said he continues to favor a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. But Sen. Obama insisted that -- like President Bush -- he would condition any redeployment on continued security success.
"Facts have to affect your decision making, and . . . over the course of 16 months, things are going to constantly change," he said at one point.
It wasn't a new position, but it was a new emphasis. In his statement Monday, the Illinois senator also talked up prospects for a "long-term partnership" with Iraq, including military training, counterterrorism, and economic development.
On Tuesday, he praised U.S. forces and the security gains they have helped achieve, without mentioning Mr. Bush's troop surge directly. He also marveled at the military's high morale.
Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, has claimed an advantage over Sen. Obama on national-security issues. On Tuesday, Sen. McCain stepped up his attacks on Sen. Obama, pointing to the Illinois senator's opposition to the 2007 troop surge -- which Sen. McCain supported -- and to his advocacy of a seemingly hard-and-fast timeline as he was seeking the Democratic nomination.
"I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war," the Arizona senator said. "It seems to me that Sen. Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."
When it comes to the future in Iraq, the differences between the two candidates might be narrowing. The administration's embrace of a time frame for withdrawing combat troops could allow Sen. McCain to ease to the political center.
It could also deprive him of a campaign issue. Asked on Tuesday whether he thought troops could return sooner than 16 months, Sen. McCain said only that "I think that they can be home dependent on conditions on the ground."
He went on to defend the surge and again attacked Sen. Obama's phased-withdrawal plan. "If we had done what Sen. Obama wanted, we'd have lost," he said.
Sen. Obama said on Tuesday, "With respect to the surge, we don't know what would have happened" if his January 2007 plan for phased withdrawal had been implemented.
For their part, Bush aides seemed somewhat impatient with all the talk of pullout scenarios, and sought more recognition for their surge strategy. "I think that people have missed the most important point, which is, the only reason we are even able to have conversations about bringing troops home is based on the success we've had," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.
In a formal sense, any agreement that Mr. Bush signs on to won't mean that much. It will be "aspirational" only and conditioned on achieving demonstrable security gains.
But any timeline is likely to create public expectations, particularly in Iraq, that political leaders will feel obliged to meet. "It could become effectively binding," said Kenneth Pollack, a national-security expert at the Brookings Institution and author of the recent book, *A Path Out of the Desert*.
That is especially true in Iraq, where parliamentary elections expected in late 2009 will make a U.S. withdrawal a high-stakes political issue.
U.S. officials attribute some of Mr. Maliki's rhetoric to political maneuvering in advance of provincial elections tentatively scheduled for this fall. Mr. Maliki may be trying to shore up his nationalist credentials at a time when Iraqi patriotism is swelling again. But Mr. Maliki and his top aides also are increasingly confident in the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.
DISPLACED IRAQIS STRUGGLE FOR FOOD, SERVICES -- IOM
July 18, 2008
BAGHDAD -- Millions of Iraqis displaced by sectarian conflict are still struggling to get sufficient food, shelter, and basic services like water and health care, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.
In a mid-year review distributed late on Thursday, the Geneva-based aid agency said fewer Iraqis were fleeing their homes, but the roughly 2.8 million Iraqis who were already internally displaced faced worsening living conditions.
Nearly three quarters of them were unable to access regularly the government food rations they depend on, one third could not get the medicines they needed and 14 percent had no access to health care at all.
"The deteriorating conditions facing . . . (Iraq's) internally displaced persons (IDPs), as well as the limited returnee population, remain one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world," the IOM said.
It added that although the rate of displacement had slowed sharply and some refugees were coming home, most were still too terrified of sectarian attacks to consider returning.
"Some face increasing rent prices, others squat in public buildings fearing eviction, or live in simple mud huts."
Many of those who returned faced conditions at least as miserable as they experienced when displaced. Around 40 percent of displaced Iraqis had tried to come back home, only to find their property occupied or destroyed, the report said.
Comment & analysis
TIMING IRAQ TROOP WITHDRAWALS
Financial Times (London)
July 23, 2008
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are beginning to look, tentatively, at the world after Iraq.
A timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal has been the hottest issue in the U.S. presidential election campaign in the past week.
Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate, has stuck to his 16-month withdrawal plan. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, seems to think it a good idea. John McCain, the expected Republican candidate, has said it could all be over by 2013. Even President George W. Bush has talked of agreeing a “general time horizon” for troops to leave Iraq. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown hinted, not for the first time, that most U.K. troops could be out in a year.
All this has been encouraged by the sharp improvement in Iraqi security over the past 12 months. In the Sunni Arab heartlands, the U.S. troop surge, a shift in U.S. tactics and, most importantly, a repudiation by Sunni tribes of the religious extremism of al-Qaeda, has led to a sharp drop in violence.
In the south, whose main city, Basra, the U.K. had abandoned to Shia militia groups late last year, a risky Iraqi-led operation has restored government control of the streets of the second city.
There is, however, wishful thinking in much of this discussion. The gains are real but fragile. U.S. policy has buttressed Sunni militia groups, now more than 100,000 strong, but they are not integrated into any government structure. The improvement in the south hangs in part on Iran giving up its trouble-making.
Mr. Maliki, who is bolstering his nationalist credentials for Iraq’s own presidential election next year, is feeling stronger. His successful military operation has given him the sense that the growing capability of Iraqi forces means that he can do without the U.S. But this ignores the crucial help U.S. forces provided when, after two days, the operation seemed doomed to fail.
This is the atmosphere in which Iraq and the U.S. are negotiating an agreement over the legal basis for the continued presence of coalition forces once their United Nations mandate runs out at the year’s end.
A temporary arrangement should be settled between the two outgoing administrations, rather than a long-term pact that commits future incumbents to an unwise timetable.
Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain should also learn from Mr. Brown, who based his policy on U.K. troop commitments on domestic political imperatives. Not only does this risk embarrassing U-turns for politicians, more importantly, it puts at risk a higher goal: that of long-term stability in Iraq.