Iraq’s temporary demotion from the front pages by the Lebanon War and the impending showdown with Iran has occasioned three policy U-turns by US President George W. Bush.
They are disclosed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources:
One: For the first time in the three-and-a-half year war, the US president agreed to consider boosting US forces in Iraq by 30,000 troops, raising the level to 200,000 men.
He was influenced by the success of the US-Iraqi security build-up in Baghdad to 21,000, which has begun to scale down the daily score of deaths in the Iraqi capital. Bush agreed that more troops in Iraq’s main cities would help reduce terrorist attacks.
Two: In another first, he gave the go-ahead for a plan to bypass the deadlocked Iraqi parliament compiled jointly by prime minister Nouri Maliki and US ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad.
They proposed calling together a gathering of 600 Sunni and Shiite hereditary tribal sheikhs from across the country. Acting as a sort of Grand Council, the assembly’s decisions would be accepted by the tribesmen who refuse to obey the edicts of parliament.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Baghdad emphasize that by endorsing this plan, the US president gave up one of his most cherished convictions that the introduction of democracy in the Middle East formed the apex of his presidency. However, after he was persuaded that this step would also help lower the level of terrorist violence, he decided to look on hereditary tribal rule as a form of indigenous democracy that suited Iraq.
Khalilzad was able to convince the president that the only way to eradicate terrorism in the country was to separate the domestic insurgency from al Qaeda and its affiliates. Handing real power to the tribal sheikhs would give each of them an incentive to pull the members of their tribes away from the violent groups.
Some consensus, plenty of divergence
The first gathering of the tribal sheikhs took place in Baghdad on Saturday, Aug. 26 under the heading Promoting National Reconciliation. Prime minister Maliki warned the assembled chiefs that Iraq would not be free until its rival sects agreed to live together. He called on them to confront terrorism and shut the door to the sectarian hostilities that were consuming the country.
The conference was able to agree on a 21-point final statement.
While supporting the Maliki government’s efforts at reconciliation and condemning sectarian murder, the tribal chiefs also called for the release of detainees in Iraqi and American prisons.
They agreed on a re-evaluation of the Baathists’ role in society and the need to disband armed militias and submit their weapons to the state.
The cabinet must outlaw terrorist organizations operating in Iraq.
They urged enhancement of the tribal role in Iraqi politics by creating an independent tribal committee to address the various tribes’ needs.
A decision was taken “to introduce the people to the federal concept,” a formula that addressed the broad divergence of views on the question.
While a Shiite leader, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, demanded a referendum on autonomy in the south, a Sunni tribal leader Abdulrazak Suleiman said federalism should be put on hold for five years.
A Sunni cleric, MP Al Jinabi, announced that the Islamic Clerics Committee, which speaks for the Sunni insurgent groups, had set four conditions for taking part in the National Reconciliation project. The top priority, he said was to establish a dialogue with the Clerics Committee. Then, a timetable must be set for the withdrawal of occupying forces, the “resistance” must be recognized and the Constitution put on ice.
Three: The US president made it known that in return for a pledge to halt the violence, he would accept the opening of Iraq’s political and security doors to ex-Baathists and an end to their persecution.
This message, conveyed by Maliki and Khalilzad, paved the way for the Sunni tribal leaders’ consent to join the gathering’s consensus and promote dialogue with the Islamic Clerics Committee.