U.S. plan sets series of goals for Iraq leaders

Posted in Iraq , United States | 08-Jan-07 | Author: Michael R. Gordon and Jeff Zel| Source: International Herald Tribune

President George W. Bush

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush's new Iraq policy will establish a series of goals that the Iraqi government will be expected to meet to try to ease sectarian tensions and stabilize the country politically and economically, senior administration officials said Sunday.

Among these "benchmarks" are steps that would draw more Sunnis into the political process, finalize a long-delayed measure on the distribution of oil revenue and ease the government's policy toward former Baath Party members, the officials said.

As the policy is being debated in Washington, the new American operational commander in Iraq said Sunday that his plan was to send additional American troops, expected to be part of the policy change, into Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods, and that under the new strategy it may take another "two or three years" to gain the upper hand in the war.

Without saying what the specific penalties for failing to achieve the goals would be, American officials insisted that they intended to hold the Iraqis to a realistic timetable for action, but the Americans and Iraqis have agreed on many of the objectives before, only to fall considerably short.

And the widespread skepticism about the Bush administration's Iraq strategy among Democrats and some Republicans was underscored by the new speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, in a television interview broadcast Sunday. She, along with the Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid, informed the president that they were opposed to increasing troop levels.

"If the president wants to add to this mission, he is going to have to justify it," Pelosi said on the CBS News program "Face the Nation." "And this is new for him because up until now the Republican Congress has given him a blank check with no oversight, no standards, no conditions."

She also suggested that Congress should deal with financing for the current war and for the proposed increase as separate issues. "If the president chooses to escalate the war, in his budget request we want to see a distinction between what is there to support the troops who are there now," she said.

Whether lawmakers are prepared to advocate legislative steps to withhold funds from an expanded mission is unclear. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday that as a practical matter, there was little that lawmakers could do to prevent Bush from expanding the American military mission in Iraq.

"You can't go in like a Tinkertoy and play around and say you can't spend the money on this piece and this piece," Biden said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." "He'll be able to keep the troops there forever, constitutionally, if he wants to." "As a practical matter," Biden added, "there is no way to say, 'Mr. President, stop.' "

Bush is expected to refer to the benchmarks in a much-anticipated speech this week outlining his new Iraq strategy, including plans to send as many as 20,000 additional troops. Administration officials plan to make the benchmarks public sometime after the address.

In addition to trying to ease Congressional concerns over the new strategy, the administration is trying to instill discipline in an Iraqi government that has been slow to act and hampered by sectarian agendas.

"There will be an approach and a strategy that reflects not only the desire for the Iraqis to take more responsibility but the need for the Iraqis to step up," a senior administration official familiar with the deliberations said. "This is not an open-ended commitment. We are putting real specific requirements and expectations on the Iraqi government."

The Americans and Iraqis have agreed on benchmarks before. Indeed, some of the goals that are to be incorporated on the list of benchmarks have been carried over from an earlier list that was hammered out with the Iraqis and made public in October, but never met.

The benchmarks, for example, include a previously stated commitment: setting a date for provincial elections. That goal is intended to enfranchise Sunnis — who had initially boycotted the political process — and thus give them a role in the governing of Sunni-dominated areas.

Another measure that was carried over from the old list of benchmarks is the final completion of the long-delayed national oil law that would give the central government the power to distribute current and future oil revenues to the provinces or regions, based on their population.

The list of benchmarks will also deal with the still-unresolved matter of settling a new policy on de-Baathification. There is wide agreement among experts that the initial Iraqi approach toward former Baath Party members was too sweeping and excluded too many from government service and entitlements. A revised approach would seek to address those concerns by, for example, paying Army pensions to some former Baathists who have been excluded from receiving them.

One important theme of the new Iraqi strategy will be encouraging the Iraqi government to spend more on projects and programs in Sunni areas. Most of the funds allocated for the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province in western Iraq have never actually been expended. That has encouraged opposition to the Iraqi authorities in Baghdad and handicapped the American military's counterinsurgency efforts in the province.

"The assessment has been that the disbursement of funds from the Iraqi government from Baghdad out to the provinces, particularly the Sunni provinces, has been either slow or nonexisting," the senior Bush administration official said. "That has to change."

Administration officials said that by more clearly defining the goals and by planning to make them public some time after Bush's address they hoped to encourage a sense of accountability on the part of the Iraqis.

Bush discussed some of the goals — the need for provincial elections, the enactment of the oil law and reform of Iraq's de-Baathification policy — during his recent video conference with Iraq's prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

The Americans have not been the only ones underscoring the need for benchmarks. The Maliki government has pressed to gain direct command of Iraq's 10 army divisions, insisting it should be achieved by June. Some American officials have been concerned that it is overambitious. Nevertheless, an administration official has indicated that it is among the goals.

In Washington, the idea of benchmarks has been generally welcomed by lawmakers, though many remain skeptical that they will be achieved on schedule.

After meeting with the president and his national security team on Friday at the White House, senators from both parties said they told Bush they would have trouble supporting an American troop increase unless the plan included specific goals for the Iraqi government.

Senator John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, said one of his Senate colleagues asked why the effort to add to American forces in Iraq would be more likely to succeed than previous troop increases. Sununu said the president and Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, responded that Bush's plan would "include more specific goals, different rules of engagement and different expectations for cooperation with the Iraqi government."

Sununu said when he raised questions about oil revenue distribution, provincial elections and national reconciliation, he received "strong assurances that these were recognized as critical issues, that they were being addressed by the Maliki government," with one proposal that was nearing completion for the distribution of oil revenue and another regarding provincial elections.