Lead Middle East Players Are Asking: Who Now Calls the Shots in Washington

Americans are wondering if President George W. Bush means to implement all, some or none of the 79 recommendations handed in Wednesday, Dec. 6, by the 10-member Iraq Study Group. However key Middle East players, noting also the bipartisan confirmation of new defense secretary, Robert Gates, have at least one down-to-earth question amid a deluge of rumors and conspiracy theories.

Is the US president in a position to reject the recommendations submitted by the bipartisan group co-chaired by former secretary of state James Baker and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton? In a word, who will now lead the war in Iraq and US Middle East policy? Is the White House still in command?

Noting the aggressive stance of the report’s presenters, a common view in the region registered by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, is that George Bush may be fighting a rearguard action to hold onto the practical administration of these affairs, and the figures to watch now are the new man in the Pentagon and Baker himself.


Rumor of a Washington-Tehran-Iraq Shiite deal


Conspiracy rumors swirling around the bazaars, their natural habitat, assert that the compilers of the report sent advance emissaries to key Middle East capitals, including Tehran and Damascus, to test the ground for a new US approach to the region.

One favorite scenario is that a deal was struck between Washington, Tehran and the Iraqi Shiite leaders of Najef and Karbala, which guarantees routes through the relatively peaceful Shiite territory in the south for the safe and orderly exit from Iraq of some 140,000 US troops and millions of tons of valuable equipment.

The ISG report recommends the evacuation of most combat troops from Iraq by the first quarter of 2008.

It is taken for granted by the conspiracy theorists that the United States will reimburse the Iranians by easing the pressure against their nuclear weapon program.

These speculations gained ground from the visit to the White House Monday, Dec. 12, of Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the majority Iraqi Shiite party SCIRI, who was said to have tied up the ends of the deal.

More substantially, intelligence data circulating in Riyadh and Gulf capitals quote the former Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsein Rezai as hawking a proposal for an Iranian-Iraqi Shiite guarantee of safe conduct for a smooth and orderly US military departure from Iraq, a carbon copy of the rumored deal.

Reporting this, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Middle East sources give the source high marks for credibility. Rezai aspires to high office in the clerical hierarchy of Tehran and in recent years has served as Iran’s point man in informal interchanges with contacts in Western intelligence services. He laid his proposition, say the sources, before certain Western officials whom he met in Europe.


Shiites and Kurds united only in resisting international interference in Iraq


Before setting out for Washington, the Shiite leader said he “vehemently” opposes any regional or international effort to solve Iraq’s problems that bypasses the unity government Baghdad.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that both Tehran and Iraqi Shiites have no objections to the Baker-Hamilton recommendation of an international group or conference on the Middle East, provided it does not discuss Iraq.

This view is shared by the Kurds of northern Iraq, who have another bone to pick with the ISG. Qubad Talabani, the son of the Kurdish Iraqi President, criticized the panel's view that the costs associated with devolving Iraq into three semiautonomous regions with loose central control would be too high.

“The United States should support as much as possible central control by governmental authorities in Baghdad, particularly on the question of oil revenues, rather than granting more power to the regions,” said the report. The younger Talabani, who is the Kurdistan representative in Washington, said that this recommendation alarmed many in the Kurdish north who were pushing for more autonomy.

“Many of us feel that centralized tyrannies have led us to what we have today, which is a failed state,” he said.

Talabani also took issue with the report's suggestion that Iraq's problems should be tackled from a regional perspective, with its neighbors Iran and Syria playing a role.

“We believe that Iraq's problems can be resolved by Iraqis alone,” said Talabani.

The Shiite leader’s White House visit had an electric effect on the delicate relations between the Persian Gulf governments and their Shiite minorities’ campaigning for a measure of autonomy. The hypothetical Washington-Shiite-Tehran deal, should it take off, would aggravate their restiveness.


Theory: Washington is divided against itself


Another of the conspiracy theories going around Middle East and Gulf capitals sees a sharp contest dividing the US administration into two camps. One is led by President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and supported by the White House team of advisors; the other by Baker and Gates and their cliques, supported strongly for the moment by both sides of Congress, Republicans and Democrats. Each camp appears determined to force through its foreign policy.

Middle East Washington-watchers are keenly interested see where some key administration figures such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice end up. Will she transfer her allegiance from Bush to Baker, on whose team she served before the Bush presidency? At this point, no one is placing bets on whether the infighting persists or the two sides reach an accommodation.

The visit to Washington Thursday, Dec. 7, of the British prime minister Tony Blair, Bush’s staunchest ally in Iraq, is under close study to see on which side he comes down.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources disclose that his talks with the US president prepared the ground for his Middle East tour next week. Its high point will be a meeting with Syria’s president Bashar Asad in Damascus.

His arrival the day after the Iraq Study Group released its report was deliberate. His talks in Damascus will be step one of the group’s recommendations to directly engage Syria and Iran.


What is meant by the early 2008 departure date for US troops?


Officials in the region are reading and re-reading the passage in the ISG’s report which recommends that “all the 15 combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq by the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground. “

Recommended too is a transition of the US military role from combat to training of Iraqi forces.

They are asking if the first quarter of 2008 is the final date for every last American soldier to leave Iraq. If so, no Middle East politician, military expert or financier imagines for a moment that by that date it will be possible to train enough Iraqi troops to replace the Americans.

Arab and Israeli military experts alike are baffled by the assumption underlying this recommendation that inexperienced Iraqi soldiers can be brought up to scratch within that time frame while engaged in continuous combat. It is seen as an unworkable recipe that rather than stabilizing Iraq, will intensify the chaos still further. Indeed, the informed consensus in the region is that the Iraqi army faces a period of disintegration that will keep pace with the withdrawal of US forces.


Iran will be allowed to go nuclear


Robert Gates’ statements at the Senate hearings before his confirmation by an overwhelming 97:2 vote slotted neatly into the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq.

Tuesday, Dec. 5, 24 hours before the report was released, the designated secretary of defense replied to questions put to him by saying:

“If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, no one can promise it would not use them against Israel.

This one sentence carried four vital messages to the Middle East:

1. The next US defense secretary is treating Iranian nuclear weapons as a given, meaning that the United States will not halt Iranian development of a nuclear bomb.

2. No one can any longer take it for granted that the United States will prevent a nuclear attack on Israel. From now, the Jewish state is exposed to Iranian nuclear attack.

3. There is no answer to such questions as: What happens if Iran threatens, even indirectly, to wield nuclear arms against Saudi Arabia or a Gulf emirate? Will Washington apply the same rule to them as to Israel?

4. Israel is wondering if this was not Gates way of suggesting that henceforth it is up to Israel to accept responsibility for a solo pre-emptive strike against Iran. The next question is: Should that strike be nuclear in order to make sure that Iran’s nuclear installations are put out of action for a very long time?

Concern in Israel mounted with the publication on Dec. 7 of the full text of Robert Gates’ remarks to the Senate committee:

He said: Iran’s apparent efforts to develop a nuclear weapon should not be assumed to be for the purpose of destroying Israel, as Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric would suggest, but rather as a deterrent to an attack.

“I think that there are, in fact, higher forces in Iran than he, than the president. And I think that while they are certainly pressing, in my opinion, for a nuclear capability, I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent. They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons – Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west, and us in the Persian Gulf,” Gates said.

A number of officials in Jerusalem took this statement as a way of justifying Iran’s drive for a nuclear bomb to pave the way for engaging Tehran.

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