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U.S.: Official's Iraq Comments Highlight Pre-Election Policy Debate

President Bush (left) and senior advisers discussing Iraq in Washington on October 21 (epa) PRAGUE, October 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. diplomat has retracted comments he made to the Al-Jazeera television channel, in which he said the United States had shown "arrogance" and "stupidity" in Iraq.

The controversy over the statement by Alberto Fernandez, who is the director of public diplomacy in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, comes amid continuing debate in Washington about U.S. policy in Iraq.

In the interview, broadcast by Al-Jazeera television on October 21, Fernandez said that, despite the best of intentions, the U.S. administration had blundered in Iraq.

"We tried to do our best, but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq," Fernandez said.

With Congressional elections looming on November 7, Republicans are facing increasing pressure over Iraq.

Fernandez’s words, spoken in Arabic on one of the most-watched television channels in the Middle East, had an immediate impact. Many wondered what prompted such a senior U.S. official openly to criticize his administration’s policies. The U.S. State Department immediately distanced itself from Fernandez’s comments.

Fernandez himself has since issued a statement saying he “seriously misspoke” during his interview, which he now says represented neither his views nor the views of the State Department.

Pre-Election Debate On Iraq Heats Up

Whatever Fernandez’s motivation, the episode underscores the renewed debate within the U.S. administration and ruling Republican Party about policy in Iraq.

In his weekly radio address on October 21, U.S. President George W. Bush acknowledged that violence has increased in Iraq.

This past month of Ramadan has been especially bloody -- for Iraqis as well as for U.S. troops. With more than a week to go until the end of October, the U.S. death toll has already reached 83 -- the highest count since November 2005.

With Congressional elections looming on November 7, Republicans are facing increasing pressure over Iraq.

Polls increasingly show that voters are pessimistic about the situation in Iraq and are losing confidence in the administration’s handling of events. It could translate into the Republicans losing their majority in one or even both houses of Congress.

One veteran Republican legislator, Senator Richard Lugar (Indiana), on October 22 joined the growing ranks of those demanding changes in U.S. policy.

"There's 40 to 60 percent unemployment in Iraq," said Lugar, who chairs the influential Senate Armed Services Committee. "The oil production is going down. There's corruption there. In essence, even if we had a military solution or stability, it's not very clear how people pay for their government, physically how it continues on. And therefore, as a part of the planning, we're going to have to rethink the reconstruction of the country in a way we haven't."

Iraqi Official Urges Coalition To Stay The Course

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih is in London today for talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who also faces growing criticism for his handling of Iraq policy.

Earlier this month, Britain’s army chief, General Richard Dannatt, sparked a political storm when he said British troops should withdraw from Iraq soon, as their presence is worsening the security situation.

Salih, speaking in London today, said he understood international forces cannot remain in Iraq to back the current government forever.

"We understand that this cannot be an open-ended commitment by the international community," Salih said. "[In the end], it is up to the Iraqi people and up to the Iraqi government to establish security."

But he urged policymakers in Washington, London, and other major capitals not to withdraw too soon.

"I believe the international community has no option of leaving Iraqis to face these difficult challenges on their own," he said. "The Iraqi government wants to convince the international community that it is serious about assuming its responsibilities, and we understand that we need to demonstrate progress on the ground for our people and for the international community. And I think this partnership between us and the rest of the world is vital."

In the United States, many people are waiting for former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to speak on the issue. Baker -- a trusted adviser of the Bush family -- is leading a panel preparing recommendations for alternative strategies in Iraq.

But the panel's report is not due to be issued until after the November 7 election.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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