More Political Savvy Needed to Finesse the Kurds

The high-profile US civil administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, is on no account regarded in the White House as a failure. His organizational skills and achievements in Iraq have won the highest praise from President George W. Bush, as he told his key advisers – Vice President Dick Cheney, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of state Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Nonetheless, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report exclusively, the president has decided to replace him because he has not pulled off the successful feats expected of him in negotiations with political and religious leaders on Iraq’s future.

A senior Washington source told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “Bush is disappointed in Bremer as a political tactician. That is what counts in an election season.”

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the US administration would ease Bremer out of the job at a time and manner that would not harm his reputation. “It will take a couple of months and then Bremer will return home,” the source said.

Our sources also name the leading candidate to replace him. He is Robert Blackwill, the National Security Council’s chief of special operations and former ambassador to India, who is already on the spot and performing certain delicate tasks.

On November 28, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 135 revealed his discreet presence in Baghdad (Bush Names Blackwill His Personal Watchdog in Iraq).

Matters in the US administration in Baghdad are already coming to a head, according to local sources. “It is becoming embarrassing,” he said. “We have Bremer acting out front with no one clear on his standing or how long he will stay. Behind the scenes, Blackwill scrambles on the quiet to correct Bremer’s missteps.”

Bush removed Bremer’s predecessor, retired general Jay Garner, unceremoniously last May, a bare month after he took office. He was axed for one particular recommendation. He judged guerrilla or civil war in Iraq inescapable unless the Kurdish armies of Jalal Talabani and Mustafa Barzani were deployed in the Sunni Triangle and Baghdad.

Last spring, the White House was still clinging to the belief that common ground and a consensus could be forged among Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. So alarmed was the Bush team by Garner’s take that they got rid of him in a hurry.

Since then the guerrilla war has flared; Kurdish backing for US interests in Iraq has become indispensable and their expectations are rocketing.

Kurds inflexible

According to our sources in Baghdad, Bremer paid a number of secret visits in the last two weeks to the northern Iraqi cities of Suleimaniya and Irbid for meetings with Talabani and Barzani. He tried to dismantle the Kurdish time bomb of autonomy ahead of the handover of sovereignty to the Iraqis on June 30 and the run-up to a general election that keeps on slipping further into the future.

Bremer returned to Baghdad empty-handed. The Kurdish leaders had bound their contingency plan for northern Iraq with iron staples. (DEBKA-Net-Weekly 140 revealed its outlines on January 2: “Talabani’s Fallback Plan for his Own Kurdistan”)

The blueprint had evolved into a non-negotiable take-or-leave-it dictate for Washington to accept in its entirety or forfeit the continued cooperation of the Kurdish leadership.

Talabani and Barzani’s terms as listed to Bremer were unshakable: an autonomous Kurdistan in a federal Iraq, no federal interference in internal Kurdistan affairs, no federal military entry into the Kurdish region – a prohibition applying equally to American-trained Iraqi forces, and the establishment of a Kurdish army. Talabani told the American administrator that after their long fight to oust Saddam Hussein, the Kurds would not be satisfied with a US proposition that offered them less than they had before the first Gulf war in 1991.

On one issue, the two Kurdish leaders were prepared to compromise: control of Kirkuk and its oil fields. Even the Kurds realized that Washington cannot relinquish its hold over the area under any circumstances.

To drive their point home, Talabani and Barzani warned Bremer when they met over the last weekend: “Have no illusions. If you object to our terms, we shall declare Kurdish autonomy unilaterally.”

Kurdish political action did not end with talks with Bremer. Last week, Talabani traveled to Najef to call on the powerful and reclusive Iraqi Shiite Muslim leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Talabani laid out the conditions that he and Barzani had presented to Bremer and advised the cleric that once a Kurdish autonomous region was formed, other parts of Iraq could follow suit. Sistani thanked Talabani for his candor and promised to continue their dialogue.

The irony of the situation is that Garner was fired for his foresight with the Kurds and short-sightedness with Washington. Bremer survived much longer and achieved much, but he will end his Iraq career for having come up short on both fronts.

The Bush administration finds itself clueless on how to handle the Kurdish problem which is growing as fast Jack’s beanstalk into America’s biggest predicament in Iraq.

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