Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pessimism mounts at US Iraq strategy

Pessimism mounts at US Iraq strategy
By Edward Luce in Washington and Steve Negus, Iraq Correspondent
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: June 26 2007 20:12 | Last updated: June 27 2007 00:06

President George W. Bush has said Congress must wait until September before it receives the US military’s assessments of whether the 30,000 troop surge to Iraq is working. But a growing number of Mr Bush’s Republican colleagues have already reached their own conclusions.

On Monday, Richard Lugar, the senator for Indiana and normally a Bush loyalist, said that “the costs of continuing down the current path [in Iraq] outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved”.

Even more ominously for Mr Bush, the House of Representatives last week voted overwhelmingly – by 366 to 65, including more than 100 Republicans – to re-establish the Baker-Hamilton commission, whose Iraq Study Group report last December was largely rejected by the White House.

Neither James Baker, the former Republican secretary of state, nor Lee Hamilton, the former Democratic lawmaker, who had recommended a pull-out of most US combat forces by mid-2008, indicated whether they would be prepared to comply with the largely unnoticed but landmark resolution.

However, to judge by the recent comments of senior US generals in Iraq, the “surge” has not brought about anything like a sufficient acceleration in Baghdad’s ability to meet its reform benchmark that would in turn buy time on Washington’s own political clock – a principal reason for sending more troops there.

Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said on June 16 that US troops were “buying [the Iraqis] time to pursue reconciliation”, but Iraqi politicians seem unable to reach a consensus on key issues and provide the US with a political breakthrough to consolidate short-term gains on the ground.

The same applies to the key goal of training a sufficient number of Iraqi forces to help and eventually replace their US counterparts. At the weekend, a US brigadier-general told the media that Iraqi forces were “not quite up to the job yet”. Others have likened US military “clear and hold” operations to leaving a footprint in the sand, which soon gets washed away by the incoming tide.

Meanwhile, senior administration officials are increasingly playing down expectations of the various reports to be presented to Congress in September. General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, last week said his report would provide a mere “snapshot” of conditions in Iraq rather than a definitive account of whether the surge was working.

The fifth and final US battalion arrived in Iraq only last week, taking total US forces up to 155,000 – the same level as the original invasion force in April 2003. “It’s likely to be a very difficult summer,” Tony Snow, Mr Bush’s spokesman, said on Tuesday. “Terrorists are going to do their best to create very spectacular acts of terror.”

US troops are currently in the middle of a series of operations, which began in mid-June and are collectively dubbed “Phantom Thunder”, aimed at breaking up al-Qaeda groups, including militants who fled from the crackdown in Baghdad, now operating in the countryside and provincial towns surrounding the capital.

Officials say that al-Qaeda uses regions such as the Tigris river valley in Diyala province north of Baghdad and Hilla to the south as safe areas, brutally cementing its authority by means such as public executions.

These “safe areas” have in the past proven vulnerable to huge US operations, such as those carried out in the Euphrates river valley in Anbar province in 2004 and 2005. But often the bulk of the fighters have been able to flee elsewhere to begin again.

General Petraeus is likely to ask Washington for more time for his counter- insurgency strategy to work – a process, he recently argued, that typically takes “nine to 10 years”. But with many Republican lawmakers fearing electoral meltdown next year unless US forces have started to withdraw, time is the last thing on their minds.

“There’s a real sense of political urgency in Congress,” said Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution. “It is going to be much harder for Mr Bush to hold the line in September than it has been up until now.”


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