Bush's new plan for Iraq war a gamble

Iran Materials 11 January 2007 13:16 (UTC +04:00)

(AP) - President Bush's new approach to the Iraq war depends for success on another new approach, from an Iraqi leader who has failed U.S. expectations at every turn.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to deliver the unified government or additional troops he promised. And he's protected his own political footing at the expense of his American sponsors' goals.

Bush announced plans Wednesday to increase U.S. forces and expand a war that most Americans oppose or want to see end quickly. Although Bush acknowledged failure or disappointment on several fronts in Iraq, he pointed no fingers directly at al-Maliki.

Instead, Bush outlined what he said is an Iraqi commitment to deploy new troops and commanders across Baghdad to boost security and build trust, reports Trend.

"This is a strong commitment," Bush said. "But for it to succeed, our commanders say the Iraqis will need our help."

Justifying the addition of 21,500 U.S. troops, Bush also acknowledged the extent to which he needs al-Maliki and the other way around.

Stepping back now "would force a collapse of the Iraqi government" and could mean U.S. troops staying even longer, he said.

Selling the strategy ahead of Bush's speech, White House counselor Dan Bartlett acknowledged that U.S. forces in Baghdad "sometimes were handcuffed by political interference by the Iraqi leadership." That must and will change, he said.

"The Iraqis have to step up," Bartlett said.

Bush and his advisers have said much the same thing for months, without much to show for it.

Despite pledges from al-Maliki's Shiite-led government for greater cooperation, al-Maliki has stumbled politically while the country fell deeper into chaos and distrust. And he failed to provide promised Iraqi troops last summer as part of a security crackdown in Baghdad that has produced few results.

Bush has repeatedly endorsed al-Maliki as a patriot and a strong leader. But at home, al-Maliki is increasingly seen as a partisan Shiite politically beholden to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

This time, Bush is apparently banking on al-Maliki's personal assurances, including in a lengthy private conversation last week.

Al-Maliki reportedly told Bush he will not stand in the way of a military push against sectarian militias, including al-Sadr's powerful Mahdi Army that undergirds his political support. Shiite militias are blamed for the widespread killings of Sunnis that have pushed the country close to civil war.

Al-Maliki also promised that the rules of engagement for U.S. forces will change, and that he will provide additional troops and money to fight violence and speed reconstruction.

The White House points to benchmarks for Iraqi performance built in to the new plan, but Bush spoke of no specific penalties for the al-Maliki government if it cannot or will not perform. Al-Maliki knows he risks losing support both from Americans and Iraqis if he fails, and that is enough, Bush suggested.

Al-Maliki rejected similar U.S. demands for benchmarks and a crackdown on militias late last year, leading to a serious breach between Baghdad and Washington. A leaked internal memo in which White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley cast doubt on al-Maliki's sincerity and abilities did not help.

The disappointments began almost as soon as al-Maliki took office last spring as Washington's brightest hope for fresh traction in Iraq. Al-Maliki's U.S.-backed plan to quiet the spiraling violence in Baghdad fell apart almost as soon as it began, and he has failed to tick off other items on the Bush administration's to do list, such as rally squabbling politicians behind a workable plan to share Iraq's oil wealth across sectarian divides.

The year ended with al-Maliki rejecting a request from the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad for a delay of up to two weeks in the execution of former Sunni leader Saddam Hussein. Washington did not want the hanging to take place on the day that Sunni celebrations began for Eid al-Adha, a major Muslim festival.

The hanging drew outrage, and Bush's disgust, after a video appeared on the Internet that showed Saddam being taunted with chants of "Muqtada!" in his final moments.

Al-Sadr's support was crucial to al-Maliki's election, and although relations between the two men have since become strained the prime minister has resisted using Iraqi forces in any offensive against the cleric.

At the same time, the Iraqi government has given U.S. forces a free hand against Sunni militants.

On Saturday, al-Maliki had announced a new drive to rid Baghdad of sectarian fighters. The move was seen as his attempt to put an Iraqi stamp on a U.S. troop increase he had previously rebuffed.

Hours before Bush's speech, al-Maliki told Shiite militiamen to surrender their arms or face an all-out assault by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces, senior Iraqi officials said.

"Muqtada al-Sadr has about 30 members in parliament," observed Kennedy School of Government research fellow Gregory Aftandilian, a former Middle East analyst at the State Department. "It's still unclear to me whether Maliki is really going to order his troops to crack down on a militia (controlled by) a part of his political base."