Bush, top brass rethink Iraq strategy

Amid a surge in United States soldier deaths and under increasing pressure to change course in Iraq, President George Bush has met top military commanders to mull possible adjustments to US strategy, the White House said.

Bush held talks with General John Abizaid, the top commander in the Middle East; General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq; Vice-President Dick Cheney; Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley; Deputy National Security Adviser Jack Crouch; and US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, according to Nicole Guillemard, a White House spokesperson.

Guillemard said Saturday’s top-level meeting, with Casey and Khalilzad participating via video link from Baghdad, was part of ongoing talks on Iraq policy and prospects.

This meeting was the third in a series of consultations between the US president and his commanders in the field on Iraq.

“The participants focused on the nature of the enemy, the challenges in Iraq, how to better pursue our strategy and the stakes of succeeding for the region and the security of the American people,” the spokesperson said.

The New York Times reported on its website later on Saturday that the US plans to give the Iraqi government a timetable to address sectarian violence and get a handle on the security situation, and it will threaten penalties if the Iraqis fail to reach US-established benchmarks.

Citing unnamed senior US officials, the newspaper said the blueprint is to be presented to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki before the end of the year.

The meeting came as the country experiences one of the deadliest months for US troops in Iraq since the invasion of the country in March 2003, fuelling beliefs that a major adjustment in US policy could be in the works.

At least 75 US military personnel have been killed so far in October as the US seeks to quell bombings and violence, especially in Baghdad.

Also alarming has been the rise in attacks against Iraqis by Shi’ite militias, including the pitched battles that began on Thursday between Iraqi security forces and the Mehdi Army militia in Amara, in southern Iraq.

A local Amara health official said that 24 people were killed in the fighting and 150 wounded—a mixture of police, militia and civilian bystanders.

Elections

The White House meeting also came amid growing calls for Bush to change his strategy in Iraq, less than three weeks before legislative elections in which the Iraq situation is a key issue for voters.

Opposition Democrats hope to take advantage of dwindling support for Bush’s Iraq policy to gain control of Congress and have strongly called for a dramatic change of course in US Iraq policy, including a pull-out.

In his weekly radio address on Saturday, Bush rejected the idea that the US is considering withdrawing from Iraq, but added that it is “constantly adjusting” its tactics.

“There is one thing we will not do: We will not pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete,” Bush said.

He acknowledged the October toll but attributed the surge in violence to more active operations by US troops as well as “a sophisticated propaganda strategy” pursued by insurgents.
“We will continue to be flexible and make every necessary change to prevail in this struggle,” he said.

However, nearly two in three Americans (65%) say the US is losing the battle to establish security and democracy in Iraq, according to a Newsweek poll published on Saturday.

Fifty-four percent of those surveyed by Newsweek believe Bush made the wrong decision in invading Iraq in 2003, while 39% think he made the right decision.

And 31% said the situation in Iraq will be the subject weighing on their minds the most when they vote in the November 7 midterm elections, according to the October 19 and 20 poll of 1 000 people.

Among the few options available for the US in Iraq, if it does not undertake a sweeping strategy revision, is to revise the US army’s approach to its ongoing campaign to bring security to Baghdad.

Army spokesperson General William Caldwell acknowledged the difficulties of the Baghdad campaign earlier, noting the 22% rise in attacks since the holy month of Ramadan began at the end of September.—AFP

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