Wednesday, October 25, 2006

US & Iraq Agree on Timeline (or Bush administration agrees on "cut and run" strategy, just doesn't call it that!)

U.S. says Iraq agrees on timeline to peace
By Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi leaders have assured the United States they will stick to a timetable of measures over the next year to curb violence and allow U.S. troops to go home, Washington's top officials in Iraq said on Tuesday.

Two weeks ahead of U.S. congressional elections that have put President George W. Bush's Republicans on the defensive over their Iraq strategy, the U.S. ambassador and military commander in Baghdad told voters directly via a rare televised joint news conference success was still possible, and on a "realistic timetable."

Insisting sectarian bloodshed had not caused Washington to water down its goal of a stable, democratic Iraq, envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said he expected Iraqi leaders to make "significant progress in the coming 12 months" in meeting "benchmarks."

He did not refer to any deadline nor spell out any U.S. response if the Shi'ite-led coalition failed to rein in violence, some of it by pro-government militias, or to address concerns among minority Sunnis over sharing Iraq's oil wealth.

"Iraqi leaders must step up to achieve key political and security milestones on which they have agreed," Khalilzad said.

"They have committed themselves to a timeline for making some of those decisions," he added. "We will work with them as closely as possible so that they do meet those benchmarks."

Bush insists the United States must stay to stabilize Iraq -- whose fate Khalilzad insisted was vital to American security -- but the war is increasingly unpopular among Americans and many critics now want a deadline for U.S. withdrawal.

Gen. George Casey, who commands 140,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq despite hopes early this year that a pullout might be under way by election time, again forecast Iraqis would be able to handle most tasks in 12 to 18 months, with some U.S. support.

But he also did not rule out calling in U.S. reinforcements in the near term as he adjusted tactics in response to death squad killings and insurgent attacks that have killed 90 Americans so far this month, the bloodiest in almost a year.

In Washington on Tuesday, a group of U.S. House Republicans wrote to Bush urging him to "urgently deploy Iraqi military forces into the heart of battle" by sending at least 20 of the 114 U.S.-trained Iraqi military battalions to Baghdad.


"It is crucial that both the U.S. and Iraqi governments recognize that as the battle in Iraq has intensified, so has the need to send Iraqi battalions into the heart of battle," said the letter from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and 32 other Republicans.

Also on Tuesday, a U.S. defense official said the British military hoped to withdraw troops from Iraq within about 12 months, saying the U.K. government wanted to focus its force on the war in Afghanistan.

British officials have told their U.S. counterparts the U.K. military was "near the breaking point" given long deployments in Iraq and weak retention of personnel, the American official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The deaths of three more Americans were announced on Tuesday and a military translator of Iraqi descent was feared abducted, prompting a massive search operation in Baghdad.

"Despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible ... on a realistic timetable," Khalilzad said.

Iraqi officials, marking holidays for the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, had no comment. Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's unity government on Monday said its forces would crack down on illegal armed groups.

Six months after Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki took office, with vital support from Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, such pledges have yet to curb activity by militias, like Sadr's Mehdi Army, which Khalilzad singled out as needing to be "brought under control."

In Washington, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the Iraqi government needed to move faster to bring stability to the country.

Casey and Khalilzad said U.S. and Iraqi forces faced a tough task against enemies that included not just Sunni al Qaeda militants but also Shi'ite Iran and the Syrian leadership. They decried "decidedly unhelpful" and "cynical" policies pursued by Iraq's two neighbors.

Casey said he planned unspecified tactical changes to curb sectarian bloodshed claiming hundreds of lives a week, notably in Baghdad, where Shi'ites and Sunnis live side by side.

U.S. and Iraqi troops mounted door-to-door searches, set up roadblocks and flew helicopter sorties over the capital in the hunt for the missing translator, who was not named.

The military said he left a U.S. base in the city center's Green Zone on Monday to visit a relative and was snatched by armed men who handcuffed him and bundled him into a car.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Ibon Villelabeitia, Paul Holmes and Claudia Parsons in Baghdad, Kristin Roberts in Washington and the London and Moscow bureaus)