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An Appeal for Time in Iraq

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: September 14, 2007

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In the climax to a week of high-level debate over the U.S. role in Iraq, President Bush laid out plans for a “way forward” in a televised September 13 speech. Bush said 5,700 U.S. troops would be pulled out of Iraq by the end of 2007, and perhaps as many as 30,000 by mid-2008, leaving a U.S. force roughly equivalent in size to “pre-surge” December 2006 levels. A New York Times news analysis says the speech carefully addressed three distinct audiences—the U.S. public, Iraqi leaders, and insurgents—and says the address came as the final piece of a “highly orchestrated game plan to change the political debate in Washington.”

A major element of that “game plan” was congressional testimony by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker. Petraeus said achieving success in Iraq will be “neither quick nor easy” and Crocker conceded (WashPost) that the Iraqi government “in many respects is dysfunctional.” Both Petraeus and Crocker were, in fact, generally hopeful about the prospects for achieving U.S. goals of a stable, democratic Iraq in their highly anticipated reports to Congress on September 10 and 11. But the long term horizons they suggested for U.S. military involvement are bound to intensify debate in a Congress already bitterly divided over Democratic demands for a troop-withdrawal timeline. Even before the Petraeus-Crocker testimony in the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, lawmakers from both parties clashed (WashPost) over the credibility of their message. On September 11, they were challenged by Republican and Democratic senators alike to provide a more coherent plan (Reuters) for success in Iraq.

Petraeus said the security objectives of the 30,000-troop surge were largely being met, with overall violence down since last year. He outlined a troop drawdown scenario (FOX) that could result in a return to pre-surge levels by next summer, beginning with one Marine Expeditionary Unit (of about 2,200 troops) leaving Iraq later this month. Crocker expressed faith in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders to show the political will to achieve political reconciliation. He also found hope in the new engagement by many of Iraq’s neighbors—with the exception of Iran and Syria—and the United Nations in Iraq’s development. But the hearings did little to reshape the political landscape in Washington. Most Democrats are still calling for a more aggressive drawdown in troop numbers, while GOP lawmakers remain reluctant to impose a firm timeframe.

CFR President Richard N. Haass says the troop drawdown plan, coupled with reports of success in the surge, has “co-opted” the reductions argument made by Democratic leaders. He says “the administration has probably bought itself 16 more months of something that looks a lot like the status quo” in Iraq. A new poll indicates public discontent (WSJ) with the Iraq war has eased slightly.

Ahead of their testimony, a series of other expert reports seemed to lend evidence to opponents of the surge. A new National Intelligence Estimate cites increasing divisions among Shiite factions and mounting criticism of the Shiite-led government by Sunni and Kurdish parties. The Government Accountability Office finds that the Iraqi government has met three of eighteen political and military benchmarks, and has partially met four others. A third report, from a commission of retired senior military and law enforcement officers, recommends disbanding Iraq’s national police force, largely because of sectarian divisions. Further, an opinion survey released Monday by the BBC, ABC News, and the Japanese broadcaster NHK found about 70 percent of Iraqis believe security has worsened in the sections covered by the surge in the past six months.

CFR Senior Fellows Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon says the Petraeus and Crocker reports are “irrelevant” because “the future of Iraq hinges on the outcome of its raging civil war, not on any recalibration of U.S. military strategy.” But the Iraqi prime minister said Monday that U.S.-led forces had given a boost to the country, and that Iraqi forces are not ready (VOA) to take over security responsibility.

Some experts say a precipitous U.S. withdrawal is unlikely, and would strengthen Iran’s hand in the region. A day after testifying Petraeus and Crocker singled out Iran out for undermining security (BBC) in Iraq with weapons and training for militants. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Tehran a “very troubling neighbor.”

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