How soon can the U.S. exit Iraq?

FOR MONTHS, the line in the corridors of power in Washington was that a process would have to be gone through in Iraq before full sovereignty was restored to the people there; and that there would have to be a constitution in place and elections to choose a government.

Not too long ago, the top American civilian official in occupied Iraq, Paul Bremer, argued forcefully against any early transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis. "Shortcutting the process would be dangerous," he had stressed. But by November 2003, his tune and that of others in the Bush administration had completely changed, even if Washington wished to give the impression that its so-called accelerated plan actually came from the handpicked Iraqi Governing Council in Baghdad.

"I'll be taking them a message from the President that he remains steadfast in his determination to defeat terrorism in Iraq and steadfast in his determination to give Iraqis authority over their country ...," Mr. Bremer told the media at the White House on November 12 even as he refused to go into the specifics of the "plan".

Mr. Bremer had rushed to Washington to discuss with the President, George W. Bush, and his National Security Council the "changes" to be effected. His visit came amid rumours of serious rifts within the administration on the future of Iraq, the timetable for action and perhaps sharp differences with the top American official in Baghdad itself.

But no sooner was the "plan" revealed in Baghdad, than the Democrats and critics of the Republican administration saw in this grand strategy the desire to cut and run — placing a higher premium on the U.S. presidential election process — rather than see the whole thing through successfully and carefully.

Many have viewed the developments over Iraq from the beginning as one big tissue of lies or rationalisations based on doctored intelligence assessments. The emphasis on "no short cuts" was freely tossed around when Mr. Bush's approval rating was in the 70 per cent-plus range; but in the last six months, the rating has dropped 21 points. So much so that 50 per cent of the Americans are not inclined to have the incumbent for another term in office starting January 2005. Much of this was fuelled by fears that the administration had got the U.S. into a mess from which it was going to take years to get out.

The Bush administration's so-called accelerated exit plan comes at a time when there have been calls in Congress, especially in the Republican circles, that one way the U.S. could get out of the mess and beat back the Iraqi resistance was by increasing its military force in Iraq, which is currently around 130,000.

However, the White House seems to have come to the conclusion that under its new scheme of things, American forces will remain in Iraq for "a while" after an interim government is in place by the end of June 2004, leading up to formal elections in the country by the end of 2005. The Pentagon is also quietly looking at a withdrawal of about 30,000 troops by the beginning or middle of next year.

Some of the acceleration of the exit plan has to do with a damning report of the Central Intelligence Agency that sent the blunt message that the administration was refusing to acknowledge: that ordinary Iraqis were fast losing faith in the American forces and the handpicked Iraqi Governing Council. At first the White House and the CIA even refused to admit the existence of the report, but later unnamed officials were freely talking about the implications to policy.

For the White House there was yet another grim reminder: a majority of the Iraqis considered the Americans occupiers, not liberators. One of the pointed warnings was that American forces could soon come under increased attacks as there was the likelihood of the majority Shia Muslim population joining hands with the Sunni minority.

And at a time when the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was characterising the Iraqi resistance as nothing more than "dead-enders", "foreign terrorists" or "criminal gangs", the top American General on the ground, John Abizaid, was estimating resistance forces at around 5,000 and with higher levels of coordination. The Head of the United States Central Command had another message for this Republican administration: "There is some level of coordination that's taking place at very high levels, although I'm not so sure I'd say that there's a national level resistance leadership — not yet."

For all the talk of staying on course, it was only to be expected that the Bush White House would change course when so many things that could have an adverse impact on the presidential re-election campaign were happening. To the dismay of all those brass hats and civilian intellectual folks at the Pentagon who believed that the Iraq operation had ended when the statue of Saddam Hussein was taken down in Baghdad and dragged around, there was a different story unfolding with every passing day. This is something that the President's political advisers could not ignore for too long.

Increasingly it was becoming clear that it was not safe to have the Iraq script written by the Pentagon or the hawks in the administration if Mr. Bush was to have any chance of re-election. At least that is how the campaign managers of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign have figured it. With good reason. One of the recent polls by Newsweek magazine showed that 50 per cent of the registered voters have said that they would not like to see Mr. Bush re-elected; only 44 per cent said they would like to see him again in the White House; in every match up against leading Democratic candidates, there is a statistical dead-heat; only 14 per cent of Americans are very confident that a democratic form of government will be established in Iraq; 53 per cent believe that the United States does not have a well thought out plan for security and stable government in post-war Iraq; and 75 per cent are at least "somewhat concerned" that the U.S. will be bogged down in Iraq for many more years; and nearly 55 per cent have opined that it should start reducing the military personnel and start bringing the troops home. And a record high of 60 per cent have said that Washington's spending in Iraq is too high.

The Bush White House has a habit of publicly posturing that the President is simply not interested in polls; rather his emphasis is on policy. In normal times, this statement would be ignored but in election season it will be laughed out of court. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Bush's approval rating is hurting; and much of it has to do with Iraq.

The Newsweek poll has shown that approval rating for the President is at 52 per cent, which some would say is "good", but his handling of the Iraq situation has dropped a further five percentage points to 42 per cent. And campaign managers have started feeling the "heat" especially as the Democrats have opened up a front. The administration might hate to hear the words "cutting and running" but that is what it is, say critics.

Making the White House more edgy is the continual comparison between Vietnam and Iraq — it would perhaps prefer a comparison with the Philippines of the early 1900s — even if mainstream television in America has yet to effectively portray what is taking place in the West Asian country. The fact that the U.S. casualties have gone over the 400 mark and are rising rapidly does not appear to have had the same depth of meaning as when the "body bags" came home from Vietnam. Nearly 60,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War that came to an end in the mid-1970s.

There might not be similarities between the manner in which the U.S. got involved in Iraq and in Vietnam but certainly there are lessons to be learnt from the latter for any military involvement, especially one that involves guerrilla warfare. To the Bush re-election campaign there is the nightmare of getting mired in Iraq to the point of losing the presidency which is why it has decided to take the short cut even if it is laced with graver problems in the long term. For now, it is the short term that matters.

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