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Iraqi leaders at the preparatory reconciliation conference in Cairo on 19 November (AFP)
Leaders of Iraq’s Shi'ite and Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities met in Cairo recently and pledged to work toward national reconciliation. In a final communique, they also called on the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to set a timetable for the withdrawal of American and other foreign troops from Iraq. Their call came as some key members of the U.S. Congress have also begun to urge such a timetable -- a notion that Bush has repeatedly rejected. What does the Cairo conference mean for the evolving Iraq debate in Washington?
Washington, 23 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- President Bush has long rejected the notion of setting a timetable for withdrawing American troops, saying Iraq first needs to build its own army to defend itself.
Bush also says a timetable would let insurgents just wait for the pullout -- and then attack Iraqi security forces.
But in Cairo on 21 November, leaders of Iraq’s three main communities urged the Bush administration to adopt a "specified timetable" for withdrawing foreign forces. Insurgent groups did not take part in the meeting.
However, the final Cairo communique says any timetable must depend on “an immediate national program for rebuilding the security forces” of Iraq.
In a way, that caveat looks similar to what Bush says about Iraq needing to have its own forces ready before any pullout.
Judith Kipper directs the Middle East Forum at the Council on Foreign Relations, a private policy research group. She tells RFE/RL that the Bush administration and the Iraqis have very different ways of looking at a withdrawal strategy.
“The United States has several different reasons for looking at a timetable," Kipper says. "One is the condition of the U.S. military and the need to rotate a very large number of troops [into and out of Iraq]. For the Iraqis, all factions, despite their [disparate] political points of view, want foreign forces out because it’s their country. And I don't think we should confuse the two [outlooks], and I think part of the problem is that we need to get out from in between the Iraqis.”
Kipper says the Cairo document is far from a demand thrust upon Bush.
Rather, she says, it is a way of demonstrating limited but concrete success the three parties have had in momentarily setting aside their differences ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 15 December.
The Cairo talks were sponsored by the Arab League and backed by the United States.
Kipper says the Cairo statement also serves another purpose: It shows the Arab League has successfully helped bring about common ground between Iraq and its neighbors.
“For the Iraqis, this is intra- and inter-Arab politics, and it’s a step toward possible long-term reconciliation between the Arabs and the Iraqis, and it's also trying to get the Iraqis to talk to each other," Kipper says. "What will be important is the outcome of the [December] election.”
Anthony Cordesman, a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. State and Defense departments with broad experience in the Middle East, says he agrees.
Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said on 21 November that Iraq's own forces should be ready to defend the country by the end of 2006.
But Cordesman says he is not so sure. He notes that while Iraqi combat units are developing rapidly, training for support units is going slower. And he says the struggle in Iraq is mostly political, and that it is too early to know the makeup of the government that will be elected next month.
So for both military and political reasons, Cordesman says it would be premature for Bush to announce even a tentative timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
“To put out a putative schedule before you really get to critical mass [the necessary components] in Iraqi forces and [before] you have any idea what the new Iraqi government is going to be in early 2006, is to create the kind of calendar that can get you into deep trouble, where a couple of months of patience may allow you to reach the point where you actually have something that most sides can agree to," Cordesman says.
Cordesman also cautions that the Cairo statement contains ambiguities that made it palatable to all three Iraqi factions. Yet he stresses that such ambiguities are important.
The ambiguity on the timetable, Cordesman says, makes the document appeal primarily to Sunni Arabs -- many of whom boycotted elections in January -- and goes a long way toward engaging them more fully in Iraq's political process.
But Cordesman says the fact that the meeting was held at all may be the more significant point to emerge from Cairo.
“It's very important that Arab countries got together and supported the Arab League in this; that it [the conference] was hosted in a country as important as Egypt; that Saudi Arabia helped trigger this and then offered large amounts of foreign aid for the first time. All of these steps are very positive," Cordesman says.
The leaders in Cairo also agreed to work on a six-point agenda ahead of a more complete reconciliation conference, likely to be held in late February or early March -- in Baghdad, if possible.