Wednesday, October 25, 2006

US in Iraq: We're out of here

America signals dramatic shift in strategy, saying Iraq will assume responsibility for security in '12 to 18 months'

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington and Colin Brown
Published: 25 October 2006

"In the firmest indication yet of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, America's most senior general there and its top civilian official have drawn the outlines of a political and military plan that could see a substantial pullout of US troops within 12 to 18 months.

Yesterday's announcement looked like a strategy change carrying implications for British troops in Iraq, although President Bush's aides deny any "dramatic shifts" in policy. It came after Mr Bush's spokesman acknowledged on Monday that the President had cut and run from his signature promise that America would "stay the course" in Iraq.

In a joint press conference in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador, laid out a series of political steps that he claimed had been agreed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, including a crackdown on militias, a peace offer to insurgents and a plan for sharing oil revenues.

The rare joint press conference took place amid deepening political turmoil in Washington, where leading members of Mr Bush's own Republican party are demanding a radical rethink of US strategy in Iraq. They argue that current policies have all but failed, as sectarian and anti-American violence threaten to overwhelm the country.

Coming after the White House formally abandoned Mr Bush's previous "stay the course" formulation for US policy, the appearance by Mr Khalilzad and General Casey seemed part of a carefully choreographed exercise to signal, without explicitly saying so, that a timetable for pull-out - long rejected by the President - was in fact taking shape.

The clear purpose was twofold: to reassure voters a fortnight before mid-term elections that the administration had a workable policy for Iraq and that, all appearances to the contrary, that policy was achieving some success.

But even he acknowledged the timetable was at the mercy of events on the ground, which Washington was largely powerless to shape. Tony Blair, in step with US policy, reassured the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, on Monday that the UK would not "cut and run" from Iraq.

John Pike, the director of the Washington-based studies group Global Security.Org, said: "I think they are saying that Americans are going to be there for 18 more months, but we can start to draw that number down before the next presidential election."

But pressures for a significant pull-out much sooner are intensifying. Iraq threatens to drag Republicans to humiliating defeat at the 7 November elections, while Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has become the latest senior Republican to turn on the White House. He said yesterday: "We're on the verge of chaos."

A poll shows more than two-thirds of Americans think the war was a mistake. A mere 20 per cent believe the US is winning, compared to 40 per cent 12 months ago. In an editorial yesterday, The New York Times said Iraq could become "the worst foreign policy debacle in American history". Stressing what was at stake, Mr Khalilzad called Iraq "the defining challenge of our era" which would "profoundly shape... the future of the world.""

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