US president George W. Bush was recently quoted as saying to key senators he met or spoke to by telephone that James Baker is wrong if he thinks he is running American policy. This is revealed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Exclusive Washington sources.
They interpret this bare remark as the clearest sign that the president has turned thumbs down on the Baker-Hamilton bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s report presented with much fanfare last year. Most of all, he is pushing back the pressure coming at him from various Washington circles to accept at least the part that outlines an exit plan for US forces in Iraq with help from Tehran and Damascus.
Bush’s remark was more than a rejection of a recommended course; it was a personal rebuke to the former secretary of state and veteran Republican statesman for forgetting where policy-making authority is vested in US government. This sharp putdown appears to reflect President Bush’s suspicion that Baker was intriguing against his authority and policies – a grave aspersion not registered every day in Washington.
A new element fueling the Bush-Baker fallout is the shambles of the Saddam Hussein execution in Baghdad Saturday, Dec. 30, and the scandalous leak by a mobile phone photographer of the taunts and humiliations his hangmen heaped on the ex-dictator as he stood on the gallows and recited his last prayers.
This spectacle was displayed to the world just days after the new US defense secretary Robert Gates paid his first visit to Iraq accompanied by the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace. Their schedule certainly included tying up the ends of the execution procedures with the Iraqi government.
Washington is busy shrugging off responsibility for the fiasco and no one has yet pointed any fingers at Gates. However, it will not be long before someone remarks that the Saddam execution was Gates’ first failure in his new job, one that must be shared by Gen. Pace.
Bush backs his own rhetoric
Gates served on the Baker commission before he took over at the Pentagon. Both he and the general are against the president’s plan – albeit not publicly – to bring more troops into Baghdad to quell the terrorism meted out by both Sunni and Shiite militias and stabilize the capital as a first priority. This is just the opposite of the far more defeatist approach which the Iraq Study Group with Gates on board formulated.
Bush has clearly pulled himself out of the slough of despond into which he was thrust by his party’s failure in last year’s mid-term elections, the vicious escalation in Iraq and the international failure to punish Iran for sticking to its banned nuclear activities.
After months of hesitation and study, the US president has recovered his pugnacity; today his fists are at the ready to punch back at his critics and prove his determination not to pull the US army out of Iraq until his goals there are achieved.
In mid-December, a number of participants in a White House consultation on Iraq told the media that they had proposed the president fire Gen. Pace, because he continued to be at odds with the Bush line. Tuesday, Jan. 2, The New York Times reported that the commander of US forces in Iraq Gen. John Casey was on his way out, accused of putting a policy of withdrawal ahead of winning the war.
This is a pretty grave charge against any military man, and one whom President Bush often referred to publicly as a top adviser on the Iraq war.
The same leak hinted that Donald Rumsfeld was sacked as defense secretary on the same charge. We see here a president firing broadsides on all fronts against the political and military establishments in Washington and Iraq, in an all-out effort to prove that he, the president, did not err in the way the Iraq war was managed, but rather those who neglected to implement his policies.
The Bush plan develops leaks on the ground
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources and experts in Iraq report that as serious debating goes back and forth in Washington, Bush’s objectives run into their first hurdles on the ground:
1. The plan to replace the militia-infiltrated Iraqi forces in Baghdad with untainted troops is not going well. It is very doubtful now whether the Pentagon and the US command in Iraq will be able to meet the goal of drafting in 20,000 trained Iraqi troops capable of taking on the insurgents and the militias.
2. As debkafile first reported (See HOT POINTS below), the newly-appointed Baath insurgent leader Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, was no sooner appointed Baath leader after the Saddam execution, when he ordered his Sunni guerrilla forces to change course; he withdrew them from the terrorist offensive on Shiites in favor of complete focus on US targets. US troops thus face rising terrorist attacks.
3. One of the two linchpins of the Bush master plan for Baghdad is Sheik Harith al-Dari, head of the Sunna Scholars Council (also called the Muslim Ulema Council). As the cleric with the most influence on the Baath and Sunni insurgents, he is a big catch for the Bush program for Baghdad. However, while fully committed up until last week, he is showing signs of cold feet since the disturbing scenes of Saddam at the gallows.
4. Bush is facing a pressing question in Washington and Baghdad: What if his new strategy does not work? Does he have a Plan B or an exit plan?
The answer is that he does not. The president refuses to hear of any alternatives; he is staking everything on his plan coming up trumps in the end. And he looks like battling it through right up to the end of his second term.