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Daily Column
US Papers Tue: Bush Visit = Strategy Shift
President puts pressure on Maliki with Anbar trip; Is the surge really working?
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 09/04/2007 01:50 AM ET
- Private security contractors fire away
- Bremer fires shot at Bush
- Bush's Iraq visit "big blow to Maliki"?
The big story of the day is, of course, President George W. Bush's surprise visit to Iraq's Anbar Province yesterday. All with papers, save one, lead with it. The Washington Post also fronts a major evaluation of the surge strategy, asking if it's all its billed as. The Wall Street Journal makes space on its front page for a major look at the apparent cementing of a strategy shift that could serve the short-term U.S. interests, but fail it in the long term.

George of Mesopotamia
Michael Fletcher and Ann Scott Tyson of the Post pen a straightforward front-pager on the president's eight-hour trip to Anbar. Bush said pretty much what you'd expect -- Anbar's improvement is evidence of surge's success, strategy needs more time, if the U.S. leaves evildoers will come and attack the U.S. mainland.... The most significant news was that Bush held out the possibility of a troop reduction assuming security improved. There's little other actual news in the story, other than the news of the visit itself, but that's not the reporters' fault. It was a press event. The reporting duo couldn't resist a bit of snark, however, writing, "Although Bush touted the substantial political and security progress made in Anbar, he did not leave the safety of the base Monday to see those changes firsthand." A buried nugget, however, was the lack of intimidation shown by a Sunni sheikh who was to meet with Bush. Ali al-Khalifa said the president was welcome as a friend in Anbar, but the sheikh planned to deliver a list of demands to Bush, including "electricity, water, communications, hospitals and other infrastructure, as well as complete compensations to the citizens," effectively turning the leader of the free world into the mayor of Ramadi, busy filling potholes. Almost entirely missing from the story, however, is why Bush decided to drop in on Anbar now and, more importantly, summon Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki from Baghdad. The last graph clues us in, but it should have been much higher up: "Bush's visit to Anbar province is a strong message to the Maliki government in Baghdad and a rebuke to the Shiite opposition to arming the tribesmen to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq," said Farhan Jassem, a sheik from the Dulaimi tribe. Bush knows the military progress has not been followed by political progress, and facing a hostile Congress and the opening of debate in the coming days on his strategy, Bush felt a little face time with Maliki in Anbar -- kind of like meeting Ted Kennedy in Texas -- might focus his mind a bit. It's also to remind him that while Maliki might have friends elsewhere -- the premier alluded to Iran during a snit-fit over Democratic criticism of his tenure -- the U.S. also can find other friends in Iraq.

The New York Times' David S. Cloud and Steven Lee Myers handle the Bush expedition, and emphasized the dangled troop drawdown proposition, which they say will embrace and pre-empt this month's Congressional hearings on Iraq strategy. If the Post was mostly about what happened, the Times is more about why it happened, with the pair noting in the second paragraph that his visit to Iraq "had a clear political goal: to try to head off opponents' pressure for a withdrawal by hailing what he called recent successes in Iraq and by contending that only making Iraq stable would allow American forces to pull back." They also make clear that Bush's teasing troop proposal made no specifics: there was nothing about how large a withdrawal might be in the works or whether it might take place before the spring -- when some of the surge troops will have to come home anyway. The two see his remarks, however, as the clearest sign that a drawdown is coming. Bush's visit will do little to convince skeptics, something even the president acknowledged. And kudos to the Times for noting what close observers know: that success in Anbar has little to do with the surge strategy, seeing as the co-opting of the Sunni sheikhs against al Qaeda in Iraq started in the fall of 2006, months before the surge was ever announced. Stephen Hadley, national security advisor, went ahead and spun that narrative, however. But Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Anbar was an "anomaly" rather than a reproducible model for the rest of Iraq, where sectarian divisions and fighting are getting worse. "We are spinning events that don't really reflect the reality on the ground," he said.

David Jackson has the story for USA Today, and interviews some Sunnis in Baghdad, who saw Bush's visit to Anbar as a slight to Maliki. "This is a big blow to Maliki," said Omar Ahmad, 32, a Sunni civil engineer. "(Bush) is telling him that Gen. Petraeus' strategy of allying with Sunnis and arming them is better than the strategies your government has been doing for four years."

The Wall Street Journal's Yochi J. Dreazen, Philip Shishkin and Greg Jaffe use Bush's trip to report that the U.S. is planning a major shift in Iraq policy, deciding that working with local players such as tribal sheikhs is a better plan than trying to strengthen a central government. They note that the new strategy resembles the "soft partition" plan put forward by Democrats such as Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and that despite the rhetoric in Washington, a rough consensus on how to move forward is forming. While political reconciliation will still be urged, Bush is expected to announce a new aid package for Anbar -- on top of the $125 million already pumped into the province this year -- that will bypass the Maliki government and go directly to local leaders. The strategy of paying the local leaders to set up armed neighborhood watch programs is being expanded to Shi'ite areas in the south, where a typical deal involves paying sheikhs $350 per month per tribal guard. As the trio report, "The logical result of the new policy is a profound shift away from the Bush administration's original goal of building a multisectarian democracy in the heart of the Middle East." Instead, we're looking at mostly homogenous self-governing regions. (They're homogenous because, as Newsweek magazine recently reported about Baghdad, Shi'ite militias had already cleansed entire swaths of the city. In effect, there's no one left for them to kill.) The trio has great examples from Mosul, in which local Iraqi commanders have been effective against al Qaeda in Iraq, but haven't been rewarded by Baghdad -- because they're Sunnis. While the positives of the new strategy are reported, the negatives seem to dominate: The Shi'ite government in Baghdad doesn't want to play along; trying this system in Shi'ite areas seems to lead to Shi'ite-on-Shi'ite violence; neither Sunnis nor Shi'ites want to split Iraq into regions but neither want to cede power to the other, a recipe for civil war. In short, the new strategy could undermine the Bush administration's long-term goals or it might not. No one is sure. As one senior U.S. commander said, "We are riding a tiger. It may take us where we want to go."

State of the Surge Sudarasan Raghavan leads the Post's front-page package on the effectiveness of the surge and the key paragraph is this:

If there is one indisputable truth regarding the current offensive, it is this: When large numbers of U.S. troops are funneled into areas, security improves. But the numbers only partly describe the reality on the ground. Visits to key U.S. bases and neighborhoods in and around Baghdad show that recent improvements are sometimes tenuous, temporary, even illusory.
In one case, the celebrated Dora Market that Gen. David H. Petraeus likes to showcase, the results are solely the work of the Americans, begging the question of what will happen when Iraqis are the ones totally in charge. Actually, we already know. When Iraqi police enter the market, shoppers leave and business scurry to shutter the businesses. To get the market back on its feet, the U.S. military hands out $2,500 grants to get shops re-opened, has fixed windows and doors and even rebuilt shops that have burned down. "We helped them a lot. We gave them money, security, even the locks on their doors," said "Jimmy," an Iraqi interpreter. "Everything we gave them. That's why the violence has stopped. That's why they cooperate with us." Even U.S. troops are skeptical of the market with one calling it a "false representation" and another saying the tally of stores -- held up as a metric of progress -- includes barely functioning shops that only "sell dust."

Sunni recruits in Anbar Province who are former insurgents are signing up for the police force there, reports the Post's Joshua Partlow. The Sunnis are not joining out of loyalty to the Baghdad government, but because they see it as an enemy dominated by Iran and want to band together with the other major power in Iraq -- the Americans -- to stand against it. Not a solution to the deep animosity between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq.

Partlow also looks at the Shi'ite infiltration of the "official" security forces, reporting on a time in Kadhimiya where U.S. troops came under fire from Shi'ite militants, but no backup came from the Iraqi units in the area because a Shi'ite lawmaker prevented it. It was that firefight that convinced the Americans in the area to realize that the problems of the Iraqi Amy went deeper than lack of weapons or training. Some of its units are so infiltrated with militias that they're useless -- such as the one in Kadhimiya.

Meanwhile, back in Iraq...
James Glanz of the Times reports on the demands by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshi Zebari that Iran stop shelling Iraqi villages on the border in the north. Iran says it's responding to actions by the separatist group Pezak, which it accuses the U.S. of backing, putting the shelling into the tit-for-tat category in dispute between Iran and the United States.

The Post's Mary Jordan follows yesterday's story in the Times and reports on the withdrawal of the last British troops from Basra Palace to a base just outside of town.

Washington Doings
In an attempt to strike back at the president and people in the administration who are blaming him for the biggest screw-up of the war, L. Paul Bremer made letters available to the Edmund L. Andrews of the Times, claiming they showed that Bush knew about the order to disband the Army and approved it. Bremer released the letters after Bush was quoted in a new book as saying the American policy had been "to keep the army intact" but that it "didn't happen." Except it sounds like the letters don't prove Bremer's point that he wasn't acting as a rogue vice-roy. The letters only mention "fleetingly" the plan to disband the army and Bush's response was anodyne: "Your leadership is apparent," the president wrote. "You have quickly made a positive and significant impact. You have my full support and confidence." The whole exchange indicates there was serious confusion in the White House what the order, Andrews writes. Bremer's letter to Bush is "striking in its almost nonchalant reference" to disbanding the army, which a number of American military officers strongly opposed. In all, the letter exchange doesn't back up Bremer's attempt to defend himself and he comes off as a bit whiney.

Kathy Kiely of USA Today reports that lawmakers' trips to Iraq seem to have cemented their already-held perceptions. The reason is because the results of the surge are very mixed and each side has a partisan prism through which it looks. Republicans see the glass half-full while Democrats see it as broken on the floor. She also compiles a handy chart showing the four reports due in the coming days that will help shape the debate in Congress.

Blake Morrison, Tom Vanden Book and Peter Eisler write for USA Today about the Pentagon's foot-dragging in getting armored vehicles to Iraq, even though both Republicans and Democrats have prodded the DoD to get a move on.

Even as President Bush and Pentagon officials reassured troops and their families that they were doing all they could, memos and other documents obtained by USA TODAY show that the military cut or underfunded several programs and moved so slowly and grudgingly that members of Congress took extraordinary measures
The Pentagon says it acts as quickly as it can.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
Jason Campbell, Michael O'Hanlan and Amy Unikewicz pen an op-ed and chart for the Times taking stock of Iraq, using data from the Brookings Institution Iraq Index. The verdict is, yes, mixed. This is a tricky topic for O'Hanlon considering he authored what many called a naively optimistic assessment of Iraq based on a tightly choreographed visit with the U.S. military.

David Brooks, a Times regular op-ed columnist, says that years were wasted trying to build Iraq out from its center and that now progress will come from outside. (He neglects to mention that he was one once arguing that Iraq was a success because of the elections setting up a central government.) He admits the surge is failing, but failing unexpectedly. And he does manage to articulate the crucial question: "Do these tribes represent proto-local governments, or are they simply regional bands arming themselves in anticipation of a cataclysmic civil war?"

USA Today
Jim Michaels reports that according to the U.S. military in Iraq, private security contractors working for the military fired warning or deadly shots at Iraqis at nearly double the rate this year than they did the last. The military says it doesn't know why the number of shooting incidents went up, but Michaels reports that it seems to follow the increased number of security contractors hired to protect supply convoys.

Washington Post
Eugene Robinson, Post op-ed columnist, takes Bush to task for his ridiculous Vietnam analogies.

Howard Kurtz reports on Katie Couric's adventures in Iraq, which IraqSlogger's Eason Jordan has also looked at. Katie likes the soldiers.

Wall Street Journal
Oh, God. Kimberly Kagan, wife of Frederick Kagan, who drafted the surge strategy, starts out her Journal op-ed with a lot of intellectual dishonesty: "The initial concept of the "surge" strategy in Iraq was to secure Baghdad and its immediate environs." Now, Kimberly, your husband came up with the surge idea, so you should be more familiar with its initial concept. As Bush said in January when he announced it, it was to provide "breathing space" for political reconciliation. This is an old spin by now. Highlight the real military gains but neglect to mention that they're not making any strategic gains. Yes, the Anbar co-option of the Sunnis sheikhs is a good thing, but that predates the surge. In short, the tide may be turning and it may not, so spare us the triumphalism.

Wall Street Journal
Paul David reports that Texas oil trader Oscar S. Wyatt Jr. will begin his trial tomorrow on charges that he paid millions in kickbacks to the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein to sell oil under the U.N. Oil for Food program. His defense will include he is being singled out because he was critical of the two Bush presidents' Iraq policies.

Christian Science Monitor
No Iraq coverage today.

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