The Democrats caucused yesterday and still failed to reach agreement on their Iraq strategy, the Post reports. Meanwhile, in Iraq, two bombs killed dozens in the Ramadi area, and the US and Iraqi forces made their most aggressive raids yet in Sadr City.
The US will engage Iran at the highest diplomatic level in over two years in a series of Iraqi-initiated international conferences beginning next month, Helene Cooper and Kirk Semple write for the Times. Yesterday’s announcement was hailed as a major departure from the earlier Bush administration policy of shunning Tehran. Syrian officials will also be present. While the US maintains formal relations with Syria, unlike with Iran, it has been attempting to isolate Damascus internationally. The first round begins in mid-March and will feature senior officials such as State’s Iraq envoy David Satterfield. In April, Secretary Rice will participate in a ministerial-level conference. Democrats and so-called “realist” Republicans such as James Baker hailed the announcement, noting that diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria were recommended in the cast-off Baker-Hamilton report. Iraqi officials had proposed the meeting earlier, but the US withheld agreement to attend in order to pressure Iraq to pass its oil legislation. Oil legislation passed the cabinet yesterday.
The Times reports that the meetings “may not” include bilateral US-Iran talks, and will focus strictly on Iraq reconstruction, which Glenn Kessler of the Post clarifies by noting that State Department spokesperson Sean Mccormick refused to rule out such direct talks in yesterday’s press conference. Kessler reports that those invited to the conference include Iraq’s neighbors, the five permanent UNSC members, and the G-8.
Ramadi witnessed two deadly explosions yesterday, the first a Kia pickup truck laden with explosives that killed at least 16, among them at least 15 children in a soccer field. The US said it had no firsthand knowledge of the event, according to Kirk Semple in the NYT. Another bomb went off by a mosque near Ramadi, killing 15. US and Iraq forces detained at least 16 suspected Mahdi Army members in Sadr City yesterday. The early raids were apparently the most extensive operations in Sadr City since the beginning of the security plan. Over 100 alleged Soldiers of Heaven members were arrested near Diwaniya.
Even after a yesterday’s caucus, Democrats have yet to agree on an Iraq strategy, Jonathan Weisman and Shalaigh Murray report for the Post. After reports that the Murtha plan had been dumped by Democratic leaders, it seems to still be on the table. Some antiwar Democrats expressed concern with the Biden-Levin plan to deauthorize the war, pointing out that the bill also re-authorizes certain US military functions in Iraq, such as border control. "It's crazy to create a new military mission in Iraq when we should be getting out of there," Sen. Feingold said.
In other coverage:
NEW YORK TIMES
Lisette Alvarez reports on the progress of Appeal for Redress, an organization of members of the armed forces who call for a withdrawal from Iraq. 1,600 service members have signed the appeal, which reads “As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq. Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home.”
In a staff editorial, the Times hails the advance of the oil law through the Iraqi cabinet, although not with the same gusto as the Bush administration, suggesting that for the White House, there is little else in Iraq worth celebrating. NYT editors write, “Oil, Iraq’s principal resource, must be equitably shared without regard to geography, religion or ethnic group.” So long as they are chiming in on Iraq’s legislative affairs, the Times misses one detail that any responsible Iraq observer should also call for: Iraq should guarantee that the lion’s share of its oil proceeds flows back to its people, not into the pockets of international concerns.
The first soldier injured in the US invasion of Iraq happened to be gay, and has now become an outspoken critic of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Eric Alva applied to the Marine Corps before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in force. He lost his right leg to a land mine on March 21, 2003, the first day of ground operations.
WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mike McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, referred to Iraq’s political situation as a “civil war” in testimony on the Hill yesterday, Jim Michaels reports. At one point he called the challenges facing Iraqi leaders “close to impossible,” later revising this to “a very difficult task.”
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
No Iraq coverage today.