Reviewing the talk of a major U.S. policy shift on Iraq, the Financial Times of London noted late Sunday that while George W. Bush "is still insisting that U.S. troops will not come home 'before the mission is complete,'" he is now "tackling a debate over defeat that has gone fiercely public, exposing rifts within his own Republican party with mid-term elections just two weeks away."[1]  --  Guy Dinmore also noted that "While the media is focused on Baghdad, the extent of the breakdown is much wider. The official described the southern city of Basra, where the U.K. military is based, as an example of the 'Lebanonization' of Iraq, broken up by neighborhoods and factional divisions, run by local thugs and politicians seeking profit."  --  The White House is denying any change of strategy, but the Guardian (UK) reported that "speaking in Arabic on al-Jazeera TV last week, Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy at the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, gave viewers an unusually sharp assessment of the administration's efforts in Iraq. He spoke in the past tense, as though it was all over.  --  'We tried to do our best [in Iraq], but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, therewas arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq,' he said."  --  Jonathan Steele said that "A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, yesterday claimed Mr. Fernandez had been mistranslated, and said he had disputed the description of his comments.  Asked whether he thought Washington could be judged as arrogant, Mr. McCormack — who was in Moscow with Condoleezza Rice — snapped 'No.'  However, a transcript by the Associated Press confirmed the accuracy of Mr. Fernandez's reported quotes."[2] ...

1.

In depth

Campaign 2006

BUSH FIGHTS TALK OF IRAQ RETREAT AS PARTY RIFTS GROW
By Guy Dinmore

Financial Times (UK)
October 22, 2006

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/19638172-61f6-11db-af3e-0000779e2340.html

WASHINGTON -- Talk of failure in Iraq has stalked the corridors of the Bush administration for more than two years, forcing officials to weigh up the broader consequences of a forced withdrawal and the image of a U.S. brought down by its imperial pretensions.

George W. Bush, the president, is still insisting that U.S. troops will not come home "before the mission is complete" but now he is tackling a debate over defeat that has gone fiercely public, exposing rifts within his own Republican party with mid-term elections just two weeks away.

"There are some in Washington who argue that retreating from Iraq would make us safer. I disagree," the president declared in his weekend radio address.

But using language notably more somber than in previous broadcasts, Mr. Bush acknowledged the enemy was putting up a "tough fight" and waging a "sophisticated propaganda strategy." In response, the U.S. was always "flexible" in its tactics, Mr. Bush said in a nod to growing calls for a change of course. But he did not suggest any significant shift of strategy.

Such was the level of expectation, after a disastrous period that has seen mounting casualties among Iraqis and U.S. forces, that the White House was left denying reports that big policy changes were discussed on Saturday, when Mr. Bush held a 90-minute video conference with Dick Cheney, vice-president, Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy to Baghdad, and General George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq.

Prominent Republicans grumbled on Sunday on the Sunday talk shows, barely defending the administration's policies in Iraq and showing little confidence in Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.

That the U.S. is seriously losing its influence in Iraq is not disputed by officials. Its biggest weapon is the threat of premature withdrawal -- as Mr. Maliki recognizes -- but for the moment at least Mr. Bush is not ready to make that move. Speaking to the *FT*, a senior official said the strategy remained a three-pronged effort built around the Iraqi military, political reconciliation, and improving the economy.

There is a sense of frustration that the U.S. is largely on its own. "The international community has to step up if it is concerned about the consequences of failure," the official said, pointing to Sunni Arab states in the region -- such as Saudi Arabia -- which have been neutral in their support while expressing anxiety over the rise of Iran and the Shia revival. "They have to encourage moderates in Iraq, not to isolate or exclude Iraq."

Later this month the U.N. may complete its proposals for an international "compact" that would see commitments made by the Baghdad government matched by an action plan and pledges of support from the international community.

Mr. Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, and others had made excellent speeches on this topic, the official said. "This excellent rhetoric needs to be followed up by action."

While the media is focused on Baghdad, the extent of the breakdown is much wider. The official described the southern city of Basra, where the U.K. military is based, as an example of the "Lebanonization" of Iraq, broken up by neighborhoods and factional divisions, run by local thugs and politicians seeking profit.

Officials do not appear confident they will get a lifeline thrown to them in the form of new proposals being considered by the independent Iraq Study Group.

Led by James Baker, the former secretary of state close to the Bush family, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democrat lawmaker, the Congress-backed group is to report early next year. That might be too late.

In public the White House insists it will consider what they have to say. In private hardliners are rejecting several mooted suggestions -- including a phased withdrawal and talks that would bring in Iran and Syria.

2.

Special report

Iraq

'ARROGANT' U.S. HAS FAILED, SAYS SPIN DOCTOR
By Jonathan Steele

Guardian (UK)
October 23, 2006

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,1929009,00.html

Washington's top foreign affairs spin doctor has described U.S. policy in Iraq as "a failure," and accused his government of "arrogance" and "stupidity." Speaking in Arabic on al-Jazeera television, Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy at the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, gave viewers an unusually sharp assessment of the administration's efforts in Iraq. He spoke in the past tense, as though it was all over.

"We tried to do our best [in Iraq], but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq," he said. "If we are witnessing failure in Iraq, it's not the failure of the United States alone. Failure would be a disaster for the region."

The Bush administration often condemned the Qatar-based al-Jazeera, and even bombed its studios in Baghdad and Kabul. But recently it has adjusted policy and started using its few Arabic-speakers to appear on discussions and debates. It thought it had found a good way to get its line across. But Mr. Fernandez was franker than his paymasters expected.

A State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, yesterday claimed Mr. Fernandez had been mistranslated, and said he had disputed the description of his comments. Asked whether he thought Washington could be judged as arrogant, Mr. McCormack -- who was in Moscow with Condoleezza Rice -- snapped "No." However, a transcript by the Associated Press confirmed the accuracy of Mr. Fernandez's reported quotes.

Among several controversial statements, Mr. Fernandez ruled out a military solution in Iraq. He said the U.S. was ready to talk with any Iraqi group -- with the exception of al-Qaida in Iraq -- to reach national reconciliation and try to end sectarian strife and the nationalist insurgency. "We are open to dialogue because we all know that at the end of the day the solution to the hell and the killings in Iraq is linked to an effective Iraqi national reconciliation," he said. "Sooner or later we and all those who are concerned with Iraq must sit together and establish some dialogue. This is the only way forward."

The Iraqi government and some U.S. commanders have made fleeting efforts to contact the insurgency's leaders, but have always insisted that there can be no amnesty for people who have killed Americans. Mr. Fernandez's comments suggest that some U.S. officials now admit that there must be a broader attempt to negotiate an end to Iraq's bloodshed.

The independent study group under the former secretary of state James Baker, which is due to report next month, is expected to recommend a number of new options for Washington, but it is not clear whether it will go as far as Mr. Fernandez in pressing for a political, rather than a military, solution. Leaks have suggested it may call for more emphasis to be put behind the regional talks which Iraq's government is holding with its neighbors. The U.S. has not taken the talks seriously.

Mr. Fernandez made some of his most critical remarks when he was asked by his Arab questioner about splits between the Pentagon and the State Department over who had made the "mistakes" in Iraq.

"It is difficult for any politician in whatever administration to admit mistakes, because people in the east as well as the west don't like to admit they have made mistakes or are wrong," he replied. "This is the mentality of the people, the mentality of power, authority, autocratic thinking. This is reality."

He at least satisfied Washington by taking issue with those in the Middle East who gloat over Iraq's problems. "Saving Iraq is vital for the sake of Iraqis and the whole region, not just for the U.S.," he said.