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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 13:03 GMT 14:03 UK
Timeframe hostage to fortune in Iraq
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The top US general in Iraq George Casey and the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad have both offered hostages to fortune by predicting an improvement in Iraq in 12-18 months.

US patrol inspect aftermath of a bombing in Baghdad
US troops are more exposed as they try to tackle sectarian strife

From the heart of the "helluva mess" that is Iraq today, in the reported words of former US Secretary of State James Baker, they laid out their security and political cases that better days lie ahead.

"Success is possible", said the ambassador, adding that the Iraqi leadership "must step up to achieve key political milestones".

These "benchmarks" and "milestones" are significant. They are the new sticks to go along with the carrot of support. The line now is that it is up to the Iraqis to sort out their problems. One can foresee that the next stage, if failure follows, would be for the US to start laying the blame.

Iraqi forces

General Casey said that the Iraqi forces were "75%" along the way towards taking over responsibility (with US back-up) and this, he suggested, might be achieved within the 18 month period.

Ambassador Khalilzad, who is more of a player in Iraqi politics than a traditional diplomat, talked of a "national compact" being in place by the end of the year.

He did not say why, with the constitution already approved, a national compact was needed. He did not need to.

But it would contain, he said, a way of sharing oil wealth that "united the country", a constitutional amendment to give better democratic rights (he did not specify how), a reconciliation commission and reform of the interior ministry.

Political leaders, including Moqtada al-Sadr - leader of the troublesome Mehdi army militia - had promised to tackle the violence and an effort was being made to get Sunni insurgents reconciled with the system.

All this did not amount to a change in strategy in Iraq, it seems, but was evidence of a constantly changing shift in tactics.

Incidentally, for those on Mr Baker's Iraq Study Group, which is expected to report its recommendations on Iraq in December, there were harsh words for Syria and Iran. The Iraq Study Group is reported to be suggesting that both be brought in to help but Mr Khalilzad dismissed them and General Casey called them "hostile".

Reassurance

The problem for General Casey is that he has said all this before. In July 2005 he predicted major troop withdrawals by this summer, only to have to accept today that he had had to reverse that trend when summer came because the Iraqis could not cope with the surge of sectarian violence in Baghdad.

He even said today that he would ask for more troops if necessary.

Inter-Iraqi violence appeared to be the main threat identified by both men.

The thrust of the briefing was one of reassurance, perhaps to US voters as they prepare for the mid-term elections in a state of doubt. Whether it convinces is an open question.

And how much the tactical briefing will pre-empt the review of Iraqi policy that the Baker group might precipitate also remains to be seen.

It showed perhaps the limits in the options facing people at the sharp end.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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