Iraq in crisis
BUSH URGES CAUTION ON TROOP WITHDRAWALS
By Daniel Dombey
Financial Times (London)
January 12, 2008
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- President George W. Bush on Saturday handed his commander in Iraq the leading role in deciding the number of U.S. forces in the country, dampening expectations of sustained troop withdrawals throughout this year.
Speaking in Kuwait after a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Mr. Bush said that it was “fine with me” if Gen. Petraeus decided not to continue troop withdrawals from the country or to slow down the pace of the drawdown.
“Long term success will require active U.S. engagement that outlasts my presidency,” he added, also calling on Syria to further reduce the passage of insurgents across its borders into Iraq and for Iran to stop supporting Iraqi militias.
Soon after he spoke, the U.S. achieved one of its most high profile goals in Iraq, with the Iraqi parliament approving a long-sought “de-Baathification” law, making it easier for former members of the once ruling party to obtain government jobs.
The president’s comments came just over a year after he announced the U.S. ”surge” in Iraq, which increased U.S. forces in the country from 130,000 to 160,000 and which Mr. Bush hails as a big success in stabilizing the country.
At present, the U.S. is in the process of returning to pre-surge levels -- one 10,000-strong battalion has returned to the U.S., with four more to follow by July. But the administration and top military officials are debating whether to continue troop withdrawals during the second half of the year.
Robert Gates, defense secretary, is believed to favor a reduction of U.S. forces to 100,000, or 10 combat brigades, by the end of this year -- as are the joint chiefs of staff, who are painfully aware of demands for more forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But Gen. Petraeus reportedly prefers maintaining a post-surge force of close to 15 brigades in place after the summer.
“Success in Iraq is critical,” Mr. Bush said on Saturday. “In other words, that ought to be the primary concern when it comes to determining troop levels, and no better person to ask on how to achieve success in Iraq than the general in charge of Iraq [Gen. Petraeus].” A day before, Mr. Bush had said that U.S. forces could “easily” maintain a presence in Iraq for another decade.
Speaking to the press, Gen. Petraeus said the number of foreign fighters crossing over into Iraq from Syria had halved. But he added that Iran’s involvement in the country was not so clear. He said there had been an increase by a factor of two or three over the past ten days in the number of incidents involving explosively formed projectiles, small explosive devices thought to be supplied by Iran to radical Iraqi groups. But this followed a reduction in incidents involving weapons believed to come from Iran in the preceding months.
“What we are seeing is what I would characterize as mixed signs or mixed indicators,” he said. “We are trying to determine from all these indicators is there a coherent policy shift . . . or what else is going on.”
Ambassador Crocker added that Washington was also waiting to see if Iran was willing to participate in a further round of talks on Iraqi security with the U.S. and Iraq. “We are ready to sit down now,” he said. “We are waiting on Tehran to decide when they want to sit down.”
BUSH MEETS WITH PETRAEUS
By Michael Abramowitz
** In Kuwait, President Seems to Claim Vindication for 'Surge' **
January 13, 2008
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- President Bush ventured to this sprawling U.S. base near Iraq on Saturday to begin exploring further troop reductions with his top commander and take something of a victory lap over the country's improved security conditions a year after announcing "the surge."
Bush seemed anxious to avoid another moment similar to one in 2003 soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, when he appeared on the USS Abraham Lincoln below a giant sign reading "Mission Accomplished." In a statement to reporters here, Bush spoke of the difficult challenges ahead, such as defeating the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and reaching political reconciliation among Iraq's feuding sects.
But he also seemed to claim some vindication for his decision to send an additional 30,000 soldiers to Iraq last year to help quell spiraling violence. Bush pursued his policy in the face of questions not only from Democrats but also from many Republicans and generals at the Pentagon.
"A lot of people thought that I was going to recommend pulling out or pulling back," Bush said. "Quite the contrary; I recommended increasing the number of forces so they could get more in the fight, because I believed all along if people are given a chance to live in a free society, they'll do the hard work necessary to live in a free society."
"Iraq is now a different place from one year ago," Bush said after his first face-to-face meeting in four months with Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. Bush and Petraeus discussed the possibility of further troop reductions later this year, but no decisions were made.
Bush then appeared briefly before several thousand soldiers gathered on bleachers in the middle of this large Army base in the desert south of Kuwait City. A giant "Hoo-ah!" greeted the commander in chief as he thanked the troops for their service and vowed victory in Iraq.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we will succeed," Bush said, standing near a giant American flag hanging from a crane. "There is no doubt in my mind when history was written, the final page will say: 'Victory was achieved by the United States of America for the good of the world.'"
Bush's visit to this Army base, between state visits with the leaders of Kuwait and Bahrain, is the only stop of his eight-day trip to the Middle East devoted solely to Iraq, the central project of his presidency. Whether Bush succeeds in creating a stable democracy remains in question, and debate has broken out among military experts over whether the decline in violence is a temporary lull or a permanent feature of life in Iraq.
Petraeus reported at the end of last year that the number of weekly attacks in Iraq had dropped 60 percent since June, to roughly 500 a week by late December. A total of 901 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq in 2007, compared with 822 in 2006, according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent organization that tracks casualties.
As the Jan. 10 anniversary of the surge announcement approached, many Democrats ramped up criticism of what they see as a lack of progress on the political front. They argued that the troop increase has failed to achieve one of its principal objectives: Iraq's politicians, they say, have not used this period of reduced violence to make necessary political compromises, such as reaching an agreement on legislation about sharing oil revenue.
In one sample of this critique, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said this week that political progress remains "out of reach" in Iraq while the Baghdad government "has done so little to achieve stability and it has been the most lethal year yet for American troops."
Bush seemed to catch a break Saturday when the Iraqi parliament passed a key piece of legislation intended to help restore government jobs to people who had been in Hussein's Baath Party. U.S. officials have been pressing Iraqi lawmakers to enact such a law to help heal sectarian rifts.
Asked about the political benchmarks, Bush said Iraqis have "a lot more work to do," but he suggested the criticism was overstated, noting that the Iraqi parliament is passing laws and reconciliation is taking place at a local level.
"They passed a pension law, which, of course, got a huge yawn in our press," Bush said. "We can't reform our own pension system, like Social Security, but they did."
During his visit, Bush kept up his fierce criticism of Iran, which he has offered at almost every stop of his trip. "Iran's role in fomenting violence" in Iraq, he said, "has been exposed. Iranian agents are in our custody, and we are learning more about how Iran has supported extremist groups with training and lethal aid."
In a briefing afterward, Petraeus and Crocker said they remain uncertain about whether Iran has pulled back support for the Shiite militia groups that U.S. officials blame for much of the violence in Iraq. Crocker said that he is willing to meet with his Iranian counterpart at any point but that the Iranian envoy was not committed to a fourth meeting to discuss security in Iraq.
Petraeus said attacks involving roadside explosive devices linked to Iran appeared to have been on the upswing in the past 10 days, although he also said attacks using certain other weapons associated with Iran had declined.
"What we are seeing is what might be characterized as mixed signs or mixed indicators," he said.
The world from Washington
SORRY, BARACK, YOU'VE LOST IRAQ
By Michael Hirsh
** Bush's efforts to negotiate a long-term U.S-Iraq pact may remove troops as an '08 election issue for Obama, Clinton. **
January 12, 2008
Camp Arifjan in the desert kingdom of Kuwait, America's depot to the Iraq war, feels about as far away as you can get from South Carolina, Super Tuesday, and the election-year squabbles back home. And George W. Bush, who is currently midway through his six-nation tour of the Mideast, is doing a good job of distancing himself from the politics of 2008. But as Bush rallied U.S. troops at the base here on Saturday with a "Hoo-ah" and conferred with his Iraq dream team, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, he indicated that he was setting in motion policies that could dramatically affect the presidential race -- and any decisions the next president makes in 2009.
In remarks to the traveling press, delivered from the Third Army operation command center here, Bush said that negotiations were about to begin on a long-term strategic partnership with the Iraqi government modeled on the accords the United States has with Kuwait and many other countries. Crocker, who flew in from Baghdad with Petraeus to meet with the president, elaborated : "We're putting our team together now, making preparations in Washington," he told reporters. "The Iraqis are doing the same. And in the few weeks ahead, we would expect to get together to start this negotiating process." The target date for concluding the agreement is July, says Gen. Doug Lute, Bush's Iraq coordinator in the White House - -in other words, just in time for the Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Most significant of all, the new partnership deal with Iraq, including a status of forces agreement that would then replace the existing Security Council mandate authorizing the presence of the U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq, will become a sworn obligation for the next president. It will become just another piece of the complex global security framework involving a hundred or so countries with which Washington now has bilateral defense or security cooperation agreements. Last month, Sen. Hillary Clinton urged Bush not to commit to any such agreement without congressional approval. The president said nothing about that on Saturday, but Lute said last fall that the Iraqi agreement would not likely rise to the level of a formal treaty requiring Senate ratification. Even so, it would be difficult if not impossible for future presidents to unilaterally breach such a pact.
As far as the number of U.S. troops that would remain in Iraq under such a pact, the administration is considering changes that could also pre-empt anything the Democrats have in mind. Gen. Petraeus told reporters that he and Pentagon planners were also working on a new "intellectual construct" for a U.S. troop presence in Iraq beyond the planned withdrawal of five brigade combat teams, two Marine battalions, and the Marine Expeditionary Unit by the end of July. "We're going to continue to play with this, if you will," Petraeus said. "We literally meet a couple of times a week and keep working this along." Asked whether he and the Pentagon were considering a larger drawdown than the current one -- which would shrink the U.S. presence to a pre-surge level of about 130,000, he added: "Certainly there is a possibility of that." In fact, one Pentagon contractor who is working on the long-term U.S. plans for Iraq says that the administration is considering new configurations of forces that could reduce troop levels to well under 100,000, perhaps to as few as 60,000, by the time the next president takes office.
The upshot is that the next president, Democrat or Republican, is likely to be handed a fait accompli that could well render moot his or her own elaborate withdrawal plans, especially the ones being considered by the two leading Democratic contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama, undeterred by the reported success of Bush's surge, is pushing ahead with his plans for a brigade-a-month withdrawals that would remove the U.S. military presence entirely. If current Defense Secretary Robert Gates can draw down to, say, 12 brigades by 2009, a senior Obama adviser told me Friday, "then we can get the rest out in eight to 10 months."
But Bush may have the upper hand now. The president touted the surge's success on Saturday, and he reiterated that "long-term success will require active U.S. engagement that outlasts my presidency." The "enduring relationship" he is building with Iraq, Bush added, "will have diplomatic, economic, and security components -- similar to relationships we have with Kuwait and other nations in this region and around the world." Some of those relationships have now lasted decades. And as in Japan, Germany, Korea, and Kuwait, they include a substantial troop presence. Far away in the Persian Gulf, Bush is creating facts on the ground that the next president may not be able to ignore.