Opinions Sharply Divided On Bush's Way Forward
The centerpieces of the new strategy are an additional 21,150 U.S. troops and an enhanced jobs and reconstruction program.
Bush's plan has been welcomed by many in the upper echelons of the Iraqi government, who believe it underscores Washington's commitment to rebuilding Iraq.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh on January 11 praised the plan as being in line with what the Iraqi government itself had envisioned.
"The political part of the U.S. strategy is an Iraqi vision," he said. "The good thing about this plan is that it acknowledges that responsibility for security should be handed over to the Iraqis. Trained and equipped, the Iraqi forces will be more capable of protecting Iraq's security."
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said the $1.2 billion earmarked for a rebuilding and jobs program shows the United States realizes how economic problems can lead to deterioration in security.
"Unemployment in Iraq increases the violence, and we must employ the unemployed so as not to leave them in the hands of those who support terrorism and push for violence," "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" quoted Salih as saying. "The new proposals fall within the context of the partnership between Iraq and the United States, and there is a need for coordination with the Iraqi government within the framework of spending the grants."
A source in Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's office told the same newspaper that al-Hashimi welcomed Bush's decision to send additional U.S. forces to Iraq, but stressed "it is not the number of American troops that is important, but their method of action which concerns us."
Many Lawmakers Unenthusiastic
Bush's plan -- particularly the troop surge -- has been met with considerable skepticism, however, among several Iraqi leaders across the sectarian divide.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television on January 11, Salih al-Mutlaq, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, called the plan a rehash of old strategies and said it lacks any new vision.
"In fact, it is a new, yet old, strategy," al-Mutlaq said. "It is not different from the tone that President Bush used the first time and from the basic trends he adopted when he decided to invade Iraq."
Rida Jawad Taqiy, a leading member of the main Shi'ite party in Iraq, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), also believes a troop surge is unwarranted.
"Increasing the number of security forces will not, in our view, solve the problem," he is quoted as saying in "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." "There is a need to hand over the security dossier in full to the Iraqi government."
Warnings Of Increased Instability
Other Iraqi leaders warn that Bush's plan is dangerous and may have an adverse effect.
Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi, spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, Iraq's main Sunni clerics group, said sending more U.S. troops will lead to more violence and instability.
"We know that 140,000 of his forces accomplished nothing," al-Faydi said on Al-Arabiyah satellite television. "What will 20,000 more do, other than generate more violence when considering the surge in resistance they will trigger and that they will not leave Iraq until they kill even more Iraqis?"
Lawmaker Nuraldin al-Hayali from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front reiterated that view in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in Baghdad.
"We don't think the new, additional forces will present a satisfactory solution to Iraqis, either politicians or resistance," al-Hayali said. "They will be a very transient solution, but deploying these forces has implications that go beyond security."
Sunni lawmaker Hussein al-Falluji says Bush's new strategy is an indication that U.S. policy in Iraq has failed. He, too, believes an increase in U.S. forces will have disastrous results.
"Bush's plan could be the last attempt to fix the chaos created after the invasion of Iraq," he said. "Yet, sending more troops will not end the problem. On the contrary, there will be more bloodshed."
Iraqis Must Take The Lead
Several Iraqi leaders stress that it will be up to Iraqis themselves to make any plan work.
Kurdish leader Mahmud Uthman says the animosity and lack of cohesion among Iraq's different ethnic and religious groups may impede any plan's chances for success.
"If the Iraqi government is capable of fulfilling promises given to Bush or those Bush talked about, then the plan will be good," Uthman says. "If the Iraqi side is not capable, then the American plan will not be successful. I do not know whether this will work. If the Iraqi religious and political groups do not come together, no plan can work. It's a political problem, not a military problem."
Muslim Scholars Association spokesman al-Faydi reiterated this notion by criticizing Bush's plan for focusing too much on security issues while ignoring Iraq's political crisis.
"The American president is ignoring the dangerous political reality in Iraq," al-Faydi told Al-Arabiyah television. "Those who are on the ruling side today have taken the path of exclusion, of marginalization and pursuit of others. There are no links between the Sunnis and those participating in the political process."
Indeed, the grim security situation and the political logjam seem inherently intertwined. The surge in U.S. forces may be able to quell the violence in the short term, but can Iraq's political factions solve the political crisis?
Rice Feels The Heat On Bush's New Iraq Policy
Rice was the first administration official to face a deeply skeptical Congress, and the hearing proved that even some members of the president's own party aren't afraid to oppose him on his plan to send more troops to Iraq.
Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) set the tone for what was to come in his opening remarks, saying that Iraqi and U.S. troops are embroiled in a civil war "with no end in sight."
'The President's Strategy Is No Solution'
Biden said that like millions of Americans, he watched Bush's televised speech to the nation on January 10 in the hope of hearing a new strategy that would help Iraq achieve stability and bring U.S. troops home.
"We hoped and prayed we would hear of a plan that would have two features: begin to bring American forces home, and a reasonable prospect of leaving behind a stable Iraq," Biden said. "Instead, we heard a plan to escalate the war. Not only in Iraq, but possibly into Iran and Syria, as well. I believe the president's strategy is not a solution, Secretary Rice. I believe it is a tragic mistake."
Biden told Rice that Bush ignored sage advice from a wide range of experts -- including military, legislative, and civilian advisers -- that the way to secure Iraq was to bolster regional diplomatic efforts and draw down U.S. troops in an effort to shift more responsibility to the Iraqis.
"I don't think we've faced a more pivotal moment than the one we face today," Biden added. "Failure in Iraq will not be confined to Iraq. It will do terrible damage to our ability to protect our interests all over the world."
Rice said that Bush considered all options before settling on a strategy that factored in Americans' unease with open-ended involvement and the previous failures of strategy.
Rice Says This Time It Will Be Different
"The situation in Iraq is unacceptable," Rice said. "But Iraq is also, at this point in time, of very high stakes to this nation. This is a time for a national desire, and a national imperative, not to fail in Iraq."
But she characterized Bush's plan to send more troops in as simply support for an Iraqi-authored strategy that officials there believe will help them restore security to Baghdad. And she insisted, several times, that the Iraqis understand that this time, they cannot fail.
"Let me be very clear," she said. "We all understand that the responsibility for what kind of Iraq this will be rests with Iraqis. They are the only ones who can decide whether or not Iraq is in fact going to be an Iraq for all Iraqis, one that is unified, or whether they are going to allow sectarian passions to unravel that chance for a unified Iraq."
Almost every member of the committee expressed some level of opposition or skepticism that increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will change the course of the war.
Time To Cut Off Funding?
Some Democratic members of the panel spent their seven minutes of allotted time during the hearing delivering harsh condemnations of the administration's record of failed policies and urging fellow legislators to oppose Bush's new plan.
Senator Russell Feingold (Democrat, Wisconsin) called the war "possibly the greatest foreign policy mistake in the history of this country" and then voiced what no one else on the committee had dared to say: that the Democratic Congress should exercise its power to cut off funding. He said because Bush has proposed a strategy that goes against the will of the public, U.S. interests abroad, and national security, Congress must step in:
"And now Congress must use its main power -- the power of the purse," Feingold said. "And I'm not talking here just about the surge, or escalation. It is time to use the power of the purse to bring our troops out of Iraq."
But it wasn't only Democratic members of the committee who told Rice they would not support the president.
Republican committee member Chuck Hagel (Nebraska) said he cannot agree with the escalation because Iraq is in a civil war and "to ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives is wrong."
What About Iran And Syria?
Like other senators, both Republican and Democrat, Hagel singled out Bush's January 10 statement that the United States would try to interrupt Syrian and Iranian networks that allow weapons and terrorists to flow across the Iraqi border. Hagel said that implied that U.S. troops might cross those countries' borders in pursuit of the enemy.
He said that prospect, in addition to the troop escalation, worried him deeply.
"This speech, given last night by this president, represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it is carried out," Hagel declared.
As Hagel began his opening remarks, proceedings were momentarily interrupted by a protester in the hearing room who shouted: "Stop the lying! Stop the war!" He was removed by security guards.
The ranking Republican on the committee, Richard Lugar (Indiana) reminded Rice that anything the United States does in Iraq is likely to influence Iran's position in the region. He said Iran is pressing a "broad agenda in the Middle East with uncertain consequences" that include weapons proliferation, terrorism, and Israeli security interests.
"We have an interest in preventing Iranian domination of the region," Lugar said. "The fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni government opened up opportunities for Iran to seek much more influence in Iraq. An Iran that is bolstered by an alliance with the Shi'ite government in Iraq or a separate Shi'ite state in southern Iraq would pose serious challenges for Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab governments."
Several senators asked Rice why the administration's new strategy didn't include a major diplomatic push, as strongly recommended by the Iraq Study Group.
Christopher Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut) urged Rice to engage Syria and Iran "not as a friend," but as regional partners who can play a role in stabilizing the region.
Rice responded by saying that the governments of both Iran and Syria know what to do to help the situation in Iraq -- stop the flow of weapons and fighters across their borders-- and the United States doesn't need to tell them how.
Rice Heads To Middle East
Today Rice will being a seven-day trip that will take her to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, London, and Berlin. According to the State Department, she will consult with regional leaders and explore ways to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the way forward in Iraq, and advance other issues of regional importance.
As today's hearing was taking place, a new poll reported that the U.S. public is overwhelmingly opposed to sending more U.S. forces to Iraq. The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,000 people was conducted earlier this week, as news of Bush's troop escalation plan was being reported.
It showed that 70 percent of respondents oppose sending more troops, and a similar number don't think such an increase would help stabilize the situation there.
Iraqi Premier's New Security Plan Carries Heavy Risks
In a speech marking the 86th anniversary of the formation of the Iraqi Army, al-Maliki said the new plan centers on the deployment of additional Iraqi forces, including Kurdish fighters, into Baghdad, to be supported by U.S.-led coalition troops. These forces would then conduct neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps to rid Baghdad of extremist groups.
In addition, al-Maliki said the plan "will deny all outlaws a safe haven, irrespective of their sectarian or political affiliation," suggesting that he may be ready to crack down on radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.
Sunni Arabs Denounce Plan
Sunni Arab leaders were quick to reject the plan, describing it as "unconstitutional." Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani noted that al-Maliki had never consulted with the Council of Representatives over the plan, and therefore deputies were not given an opportunity to vote on it, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 7.
"The Iraqi Constitution does not allow the prime minister to approve a security plan without referring it to the Council of Representatives, now that the Emergency Law -- which gave him extraordinary executive powers -- has expired. Consequently, this plan has no legal legitimacy," al-Mashhadani said.
Other Sunni politicians criticized the plan because they said it focused mostly in the western, Sunni part of Baghdad and left out Shi'ite Al-Sadr City in the east, "Al-Zaman" reported on January 7. Sunni leaders warned that this perceived lack of fairness would worsen sectarian tensions.
Salih al-Mutlaq, the head of the Front for National Dialogue, went so far as to describe the plan as the Shi'ite-led government's latest effort to cleanse Baghdad of Sunni Arabs, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on January 7.
"The new plan will fail in the same manner as the previous security plans failed, but this time it seems that there are attempts to purge the city of Baghdad of certain segments of Iraqi society and thus deepen the sectarian rift in Iraq," al-Mutlaq said.
Controversial Kurdish Participation
There have been conflicting reports as to whether several battalions of the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, would be sent to participate in the Baghdad security operation. An official in the Kurdish regional government, on condition of anonymity, told "The New Anatolian" on January 9 that Kurdish forces would only be deployed under certain conditions.
"We will not deploy any peshmerga forces in Baghdad. The peshmerga forces are a special force that will only be used to protect the Kurdish region," the official said. "However, we may send troops as part of the Iraqi Army to be deployed in Baghdad only if the Iraqi parliament officially makes such a request and our Kurdish regional parliament approves it."
The issue of sending Kurdish forces into Baghdad is controversial. Since the fall of the Hussein regime, Kurdish forces have never been deployed in Baghdad and several Kurdish officials have indicated that this move would be dangerous and risk inflaming ethnic divisions.
It could also draw the Kurds into the sectarian conflict, which has been almost exclusively fought between the Shi'a and Sunni Arabs. Kurdish leaders have voiced concern over the perception that Iraqi Kurds, a majority of whom are Sunnis, would be fighting against their Sunni Arab brothers.
Mahmud Uthman, a prominent leader in the Iraqi Kurdish Coalition, has come out against sending Kurdish forces to fight Arabs anywhere in Iraq, "Al-Zaman" reported on January 8. "There are fears that a fight like this, pitting Kurds against the Arabs, is bound to add an ethnic touch to the conflict," he said. "The deployment of Kurdish forces in Arab areas is wrong and will create sensitivities and accusations that the Kurds are killing the Arabs."
Al-Maliki's High Stakes
Prime Minister al-Maliki's initiative, despite its seemingly noble intentions, carries great risks. The plan for Iraqi forces to move from district to district to drive out insurgents and militia elements will almost certainly result in considerable casualties. If the operation is perceived to be excessively heavy-handed, then al-Maliki could face a severe backlash, not only from the Sunni Arab population, but from his own Shi'ite coalition as well.
A prolonged and bloody confrontation with al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army could also prove disastrous to al-Maliki. Al-Maliki's political position has been tenuous for months, and he has been under tremendous pressure to rein in al-Sadr's militia, which is widely blamed for being the one of the main instigators of sectarian violence. If the Baghdad security operation goes poorly and casualties mount, it may signal the end of al-Maliki's tenure as prime minister.
In addition, if it appears that al-Sadr's militia is being crushed by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. firepower, it may force Iraq's Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to intervene and call for an end to the operation, which would be highly embarrassing for al-Maliki. Indeed, the last time Iraqi and U.S. forces confronted al-Sadr's militia, in the holy city of Al-Najaf in August 2004, it only ended when al-Sistani brokered a truce.
While sectarian tensions have been running high since the attack on the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006, the situation has been particularly tense since the execution of former President Saddam Hussein on December 30. The release of the unauthorized video of the execution incensed Sunni Arabs due to the exceptionally undignified manner in which the government carried out the hanging.
If Sunnis sense that their neighborhoods are being disproportionately targeted in the security operation, this will only exacerbate their distrust of the government. The armed Sunni groups thought to make up most of the insurgency would also be that much less inclined to disarm and enter the political process.
For this reason, U.S. Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno urged a balanced approach to the operation, which he said should target both Shi'ite militias and Sunni extremists, "The Washington Post" reported on January 7. Otherwise, al-Maliki's gamble on security in Baghdad may prove to be his last at the head of the Iraqi government.