The Sunday Times October 22, 2006
Bush to Iraqis: you take over
AMERICA has responded to spiralling violence in Iraq by preparing an exit strategy that will allow coalition troops to withdraw by forcing the government in Baghdad to take responsibility for security.
The Pentagon is drawing up plans for a “forcing mechanism” that would set target dates for handing control to the Iraqis. American troops would pull back to their bases, leaving military advisers “embedded” with the Iraqi security forces.
Sources suggest troops will be concentrated in the most violent areas of Iraq, such as Baghdad and parts of Anbar province west of the capital. They could be reinforced with soldiers from pacified regions.
There is a growing consensus in Washington and London that an urgent change of direction is needed after America’s failure to curb violence in Baghdad. At least 30 people died last night in a mortar attack on a market in Mahmudiya, south of the capital.
President George W Bush consulted his military chiefs yesterday on a shift in tactics, saying he would make “every necessary change” to prevail.
American officials also held secret talks in Amman, Jordan, last week with insurgent leaders, including the Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the main Sunni militias.
The emerging exit strategy bears a strong resemblance to options favoured by the Iraq Study Group co-chaired by James Baker, the former US secretary of state, that is due to publish its recommendations in the new year. A senior US official said the new course was likely to be implemented after the group reports, giving the Bush administration “political cover”.
“We’re not going to pack up and go home, but the situation is grim,” the official said. “People here are desperate. There is a lot of deep thinking going on.”
A senior diplomatic source said there was talk of a summit between Tony Blair and Bush in January “to hammer out the detail” of a new course. Downing Street denied any plans had been made.
The Foreign Office is urgently reviewing its options for Iraq. Blair indicated to the Commons last week that it was government policy to hand over security to the Iraqis within the next 10-16 months.
A source close to the Baker group suggested the Iraqi government and security forces would be given “benchmarks” for taking control. Some could be political, such as convening a constitutional conference to devolve more power to the Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni regions.
Bush is losing patience with the inability of the government of Nouri al-Maliki to get a grip on security. “The approach will be closer to the British model,” said a senior British source. “Instead of the Americans saying, ‘Why should we hand over an area to the Iraqis?’, the emphasis will be, ‘Why shouldn’t we?’” Lieutenant-General John Sattler, the marine commander of the battle to retake control of Falluja in 2004, is in charge of developing the Pentagon’s new strategy. He is drawing up plans for target dates that would force the Iraqi government to assume control.
“You say to the Iraqis, ‘You’re going to take this over in a month’s time, it’s your problem. If you can’t handle it, tell us why’,” said a defence source.
The Iraq Study Group is believed to favour withdrawing troops gradually to neighbouring countries such as Kuwait. A rapid reaction force could be established to deal with potential crises. If America withdraws in this way, Britain would be likely to leave Iraq entirely, according to a senior British source.
Baker has also suggested that America might have to abandon its long-term ambition of bringing democracy to the Middle East in favour of “representative government, not necessarily democracy”.