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US groping for exit from Iraq

December 02, 2006

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WASHINTON: "This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all," President Bush said on Thursday after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And that's probably the right headline as the administration reviews its options for Iraq: No graceful exit.

That doesn't mean there aren't significant changes ahead in Iraq. The premise of a secret White House policy review conducted over the past two weeks is that current policy isn't working. One of the options that has emerged from this review is a redeployment of US forces over the next year that would focus the American mission on training and advising Iraqi troops.

Bush said on Thursday that his goal is to "accelerate" the Iraqi military's control of the country and to reduce US forces there "as soon as possible." Those words should probably be taken at face value. Though administration officials recognise that increased Iraqi control is likely to be a messy process--the opposite of a "graceful exit" -- the administration has no appetite for a big troop increase. Every senior official I've talked to recently agrees that the number of US troops in Iraq must be reduced over the next year, even if sectarian violence remains high.

The administration is wary of the bold strokes, such as engaging Iran and Syria, that are likely to be proposed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former secretary of state James Baker and former representative Lee Hamilton. Administration officials are all for engaging Iran in principle, but they think that under current conditions it's likely to be a dead end. As for Syria, there are different views within the administration, with some officials ready to test Damascus's willingness to temper its alliance with Tehran and others seeing the Syrian regime as a menace whose support could be achieved only at the price of sacrificing the pro-American government in Lebanon.

As administration officials review Iraq strategy, one failed element is the policy of "Sunni outreach" pursued by the US ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad. Some officials have concluded that Khalilzad's approach made Iraqi Shia fear that America was abandoning them, without achieving any meaningful reduction of the Sunni insurgency. A few officials argue flatly that it's time for America to take the Shia side in the Iraqi conflict. "National reconciliation is a fallacy," one senior intelligence analyst said in an interview this week, insisting that, in Iraq, “You have to pick a winner”.

The administration seems to be leaning toward a more polite version of this "pick a winner" approach, which is to support the Shia-led government and an Iraqi army that is overwhelmingly Shia and Kurdish. Officials hope they can contain the sectarian fighting short of full-blown civil war and partition of the country. But with Khalilzad scheduled to return soon to Washington, probably to be replaced by veteran diplomat Ryan Crocker, the US effort is likely to involve less "Sunni outreach" and more reliance on the Shia majority and its elected government.

Iran has been especially frustrating for the administration. Officials believed that a breakthrough was near in mid-September, when Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani signalled that he would be coming to New York with a compromise on the nuclear issue that would open the way for direct US-Iran talks. The US Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, rushed to prepare 150 visas for Larijani's team. But Larijani never made the trip, and US officials concluded that he had lost an internal battle with the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Administration officials want to leave the door open for contact with Iran, as in President Bush's statement yesterday, "They know how to get us to the table." But there's little hope now that these talks will be productive.

Rather than seeking Iran's help, the administration is looking for ways to step up the pressure on Tehran, short of military confrontation.—Dawn/The Washington Post News Service