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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 June 2006, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Iraq plan part of grand strategy
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The "reconciliation" plan announced on Sunday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is part of a grand strategy by the Bush administration to stabilise Iraq - or to stabilise the perception of Iraq - in advance of the mid-term elections for Congress in November.

US troops in Iraq rush a wounded Marine to a helicopter
The administration insists it will not "cut and run" from Iraq

Other parts of the plan are an insistence that democracy has arrived in Iraq and must be supported, a refusal to set any date or timetable for a total withdrawal of US troops (presented as a weakness), yet with a suggestion that a reduction might start soon as the effort to transfer responsibility to Iraqi forces gathers pace.

The Maliki plan is obviously an important part of this strategy, and for Iraqis far more important than whatever effect it might or might not have on the chances of the Republicans holding onto both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the US Congress.

Its chances of success cannot be easily estimated at the moment. It has been presented in broad outline only and some of its terms, over the extent of the amnesty for example, are vague.

Divide and conquer

Mr Maliki said it would be offered to "those who did not take part in criminal and terrorist acts and war crimes and crimes against humanity".

It is designed to appeal to the Iraqi insurgents who are also nationalists and to drive a wedge between them and the Islamists whose vision for Iraq goes back to the Middle Ages and the recreation of the Caliphate that extended Islamic control across the Middle East.

Video allegedly showing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Zarqawi's death gave the Bush team a boost
The Islamists -followers of the recently killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and of Osama bin Laden - are not open to negotiation.

They view not only the Americans and other foreign forces as "crusaders" but the Iraqi government as lackeys and the majority Shia population as an enemy. Amnesties would not interest them.

The main weakness of the plan at first reading is that it does not set a timetable for a withdrawal of foreign troops.

This is what really interests the nationalist insurgents - yet it is the very thing that the plan could not offer.

Instead the parliament is to be asked to set a date for the assumption of Iraq security control. That could be some time away.

The plan could not offer a timetable or deadline for withdrawal because the avoidance of such a deadline has become absolutely central to the selling of the Iraq strategy by the Bush administration in the gathering mid-term election campaign.

The administration is having some success is presenting Iraq as a test of US willpower and strength.

It has just seen off a double-headed effort by some Democrats in the Senate to get a (non-binding) resolution either calling for a partial "redeployment" plus a new "plan" or (proposed by John Kerry) the start of withdrawal by the end of this year to be completed by July next year.

Exit strategy?

The Vice-President Dick Cheney, so often the articulator of the policy in its purest form, put the administration's position in an interview with CNN's senior political correspondent John King.

Dick Cheney
The Zarqawi types that have been active in Iraq are betting that ultimately they can break the United States' will
Dick Cheney

"The worst possible thing we could do is what the Democrats are suggesting.

"And no matter how you carve it, you can call it anything you want, but basically it is packing it in, going home, persuading and convincing and validating the theory that the Americans don't have the stomach for this fight," he said.

"What the Democrats are suggesting basically you can call it withdrawal, you can call it redeployment, whatever you want to call it, basically it's - in effect, validates the terrorist strategy.

"You got to remember that the Osama bin Laden types, the al-Qaeda types, the Zarqawi types that have been active in Iraq are betting that ultimately they can break the United States' will."

Mr Cheney's linking of the war in Iraq to Mr Bush's wider war on terrorism is quite a powerful political message in an election year.

But in order to appeal to those Americans who do worry about the open-ended commitment to Iraq, word is emerging from US sources that the general in charge in Iraq, George Casey, has drawn up a proposal under which there would be, in the words of the New York Times, "sharp reductions in the United States military presence there by the end of 2007, with the first cuts coming this September".

The Casey plan would involve reducing the number of combat brigades (each brigade having about 3,500 troops) from 14 to 5 or 6 by the end of next year.

The combined strategy - reconciliation and resolution yet with the hint of a substantive withdrawal - is what Mr Bush hopes will pull his party through in November.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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