Bush may turn to UN in search for Iraq solution
If troop surge fails, strategy is to involve other nations under UN umbrella
The Guardian | May 23, 2007
The Bush administration is developing plans to "internationalise" the Iraq crisis, including an expanded role for the United Nations, as a way of reducing overall US responsibility for Iraq's future and limiting domestic political fallout from the war as the 2008 election season approaches.
The move comes amid rising concern in Washington that President George Bush's controversial Baghdad security surge, led by the US commander, General David Petraeus, is not working and that Iran is winning the clandestine battle for control of Iraq.
"Petraeus is brilliant. But he is the captain of a sinking ship," said a former senior administration official who questioned whether Iraq's divided political leadership could prevent a descent into chaos. "Iraq's government is a mobile phone number that doesn't answer. Iraq probably can't be fixed."
Although sectarian killings have fallen in Baghdad since the surge began in February, the level of violence across the country remains broadly unchanged. But the White House is fiercely resisting calls from Democrats and some Republicans to scrap the operation and set a timetable for a troop withdrawal.
The former official, who is familiar with administration thinking, predicted Mr Bush would instead ask Congress to agree a six-month extension of the surge after Gen Petraeus presented his "progress report" in early September.
While insisting that no decision had yet been taken on an extension, the Pentagon announced last week that 35,000 soldiers from 10 army brigades had been told they could expect to be deployed to Iraq by the end of the year. That would enable the US to maintain heightened troop levels of about 160,000 soldiers through to next spring.
According to an analysis published by Hearst Newspapers yesterday, the number of combat troops could almost double - to 98,000 - by the end of the year if arriving and departing combat brigades overlap. By the same calculation, the overall total including support troops could top 200,000 - an increase the report said amounted to a "second surge".
Mr Bush will sweeten the pill by pursuing a series of steps intended to "hand off" many current US responsibilities to the international community, the former official said. The president would try simultaneously to placate congressional and public opinion by indicating willingness to talk about a future troop "drawdown".
The US plan is expected to call for:
· Expanded UN involvement in overseeing Iraq's full transition to a "normal" democratic state, including an enhanced role for UN humanitarian agencies, the creation of a UN command, and possibly a Muslim-led peacekeeping force
· Increased involvement in Iraq policymaking of UN security council permanent members, Japan and EU countries - in particular, the new conservative government of French president Nicolas Sarkozy
· A bigger support role for regional countries, notably Sunni Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, and international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF
· Renewed efforts to promote Iraqi government self-reliance, including attainment of national reconciliation "benchmarks"
· The accelerated removal of US troops from frontline combat duties as the handover to Iraqi security forces, backed by an increased number of US advisers, proceeds.
"The administration's plan calls for moving on several fronts," the former official said. "Firstly, there is the international plan to win political, economic and military support for the Iraqi government and state, not least by going to the UN and asking for a UN command and flag to supplant the US coalition command.
"Regionally, there is diplomacy aimed at mobilising more Arab neighbours to understand that there is no Sunni leader coming back to Baghdad and that countries like Saudi Arabia should support Maliki [Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shia prime minister] before he has no choice but to fully align with Iran," the official said.
"Internally, the plan is for US forces to help isolate takfirists (fundamentalist Salafi jihadis), peel off Sunnis from the insurgency, contain hardcore elements of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, and halt Iranian and trans-Syrian infiltration of troops and materiel."
If all else failed, the US might seek an arrangement with Mr Sadr, if only to secure an orderly transition, the official claimed. "Cutting a deal with the Mahdi army is [vice-president] Dick Cheney's deep fallback option."
Four years after bypassing a hostile security council, the Bush administration is expected to take the Iraq question back to the UN at the annual opening of the general assembly in September.
"We foresee a very significant role for the UN and its agencies. The UN has great expertise that is badly needed in Iraq," a senior US diplomat said at the weekend. The World Bank and IMF would also be asked to do more, he said.
Washington's UN move may receive a more sympathetic hearing now that Kofi Annan, a stern critic of the Iraq invasion, has retired as secretary-general, diplomats say.
His successor, Ban Ki-moon, owes his job to US backing and may prove more accommodating. Zalmay Khalilzad, the former ambassador to Baghdad who is now Washington's envoy at the UN, is expected to play a key role.
The Bush administration is already exploring other avenues to build international support. With Tony Blair out of the picture and uncertainty surrounding Gordon Brown's intentions, Washington is said to be looking to Mr Sarkozy's new government in Paris for diplomatic and other assistance. A senior French diplomat was non-committal, saying only that it was "logical" that the US should seek French help to "rescue itself".
Responding to US difficulties in Iraq, Japan, one of Washington's most loyal allies, has been steadily raising its Middle East diplomatic profile, in part by seeking improved ties with Sunni "moderates" among the key Gulf oil suppliers.
And as if acting on cue, another US ally, President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, last week proposed the creation of a UN-flagged peacekeeping force for Iraq to be drawn from Muslim nations. The idea, floated during a summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, was rejected by Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. He complained of too many foreign soldiers in his country already.
Anticipating a crescendo of domestic criticism as the deciding moment for Iraq policy draws near, US officials are playing down expectations and implying more time is needed for the surge to work.
Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador, told reporters in Baghdad recently that progress was being made towards stability and political reconciliation in Iraq. "Does that lead me to tell you that come September we're going to be able to say we've reached the sun-dappled uplands and all is well and good? I don't think so."
As part of US efforts to increase regional cooperation, Mr Crocker is to hold talks in Baghdad next week with Iranian officials. While Iranian spokesmen have been playing down the importance of the meeting in recent days, the senior US diplomat said Washington remained hopeful that Syria would play a more constructive role. "Syria needs to learn the Pakistan lesson - that the jihadis transiting into Iraq are a threat to them, too. This ought to be a win for both sides."
While it was uncertain whether the new "internationalised" approach to Iraq would get off the ground, the political stakes as the 2008 presidential and congressional elections approached could hardly be higher, the former administration official said.
"The blame game has already begun. The Democrats want to run against a 'chaos in Iraq' scenario. The Republicans will want to keep extending it [the surge] past next February. The White House may offer a schedule for a drawdown - but what does that really mean?... The only policy Republicans have is a policy of delaying the inevitable."
In a sign that personal as well as governmental damage limitation is under way, key Bush administration figures appear to be distancing themselves from current policy. National security adviser Stephen Hadley is expected to hand over many Iraq-related duties to Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, who some in Washington are already describing as a fall guy.
Similar senior-level role changes involving officials dealing with Iraq at the state department and Pentagon has fed speculation that people who helped launch Gen Petraeus's "sinking ship" are now abandoning it.
Thinktanks in Europe and the US have also recently urged "international solutions" for Iraq. "An energetic international political effort with focused mediation under the auspices of the UN is required to complement military deployments to Iraq," said Carlos Pascual, of the Brookings Institution in Washington in a recent study of US options. UN agencies should become more closely engaged, he said.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) recently proposed establishment of an "international support group" for Iraq comprising the five permanent members of the security council, Iraq's neighbours and the UN. The ICG also called for the appointment of a special UN envoy to lead a national reconciliation process.
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