President Bush will launch an ambitious campaign tomorrow night to shift attention from recent setbacks that have eroded domestic and international support for U.S. policy in Iraq, particularly the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the escalating violence, and focus instead on the future of post-occupation Iraq.
The president will open a tightly orchestrated public relations effort in a speech at the Army War College outlining U.S. plans for the critical five weeks before the transfer of political power June 30. The White House then intends to circulate this week a draft U.N. resolution on post-occupation Iraq, wrap up negotiations with Iraqis on an interim government and begin shoring up the coalition to ensure that other foreign forces also stay after June 30, U.S. officials said.
"There's a sense that this week is our chance to create some movement in a different direction. We'll start talking about the future, not the past, by focusing on the U.N. resolution and [U.N. envoy Lakhdar] Brahimi's transition process. Sure there'll still be plenty of arguments, but it will be about the future, and that's a healthy change," said a senior State Department official who would speak only on condition of anonymity.
The diplomatic campaign is a response to serious reversals over the past two months and to growing turmoil. Last week alone, the U.S.-appointed president of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated and a cabinet official was almost killed in a suicide bombing; in a disputed episode, more than 40 people were killed by U.S. troops at what Iraqis said was a wedding party; and 16 arrest warrants were issued for aides or associates of Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime Pentagon favorite to help lead postwar Iraq, on charges related to financial issues, leading him to sever ties with the U.S.-led coalition.
Second of three phases
The road ahead could get bumpier. France and Germany are urging that any new U.N. resolution stipulate a cutoff date for U.S. and foreign forces in Iraq. And negotiations by the U.N. and U.S. envoys in charge of identifying a new president, prime minister, two vice presidents and more than two dozen cabinet ministers have been complicated by a Kurdish threat not to participate unless a Kurd gets one of the two top positions.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) criticized Bush's plans for Iraq's future as imprecise. "I am very hopeful that the president and his administration will articulate precisely what is going to happen as much as they can, day by day, as opposed to a generalization," the Associated Press quoted Lugar as saying yesterday at Tufts University.
In the first of at least six presidential speeches on Iraq before June 30, Bush will particularly try to counter growing criticism that Washington has lowered the goal posts for its year-long occupation, U.S. officials said. Critics and Iraq experts have charged that the administration has backed down from its original pledge to create a strong new democracy that would be a catalyst for a broad political transformation in the Middle East and is instead settling on an exit strategy that will leave a fragile government unable to protect itself.
"He will talk about the importance of not lowering our sights and sticking to our goals of a free, peaceful, democratic Iraq, of adhering to our commitment to the June 30 transfer of sovereignty, and of an election in a January time frame," said a White House official who insisted on anonymity.
Bush will also explain the U.S. security and political roles after June 30 until Iraq winds up the second of the three phases -- with the first democratic elections next January -- in the transition to a permanent government by the end of 2005, U.S. officials said. "He'll talk about the importance of Iraqis taking more and more responsibility for security in their own country and about our efforts to train up a professional army and security force," said the White House official.
After the Bush speech, the administration will circulate the text of a new U.N. resolution pledging to transfer "full sovereignty" to Iraq, compromise language addressing Iraqi and European requests that the United States not retain any powers after June 30, U.S. officials said. To get around French and German demands, the United States may offer to give Iraq the authority to decide whether it wants foreign forces to continue to provide security, the officials said.
Turning the tide
The general U.S. hope is that both Iraqis and key U.N. members will view the language on the top political and security issues as a signal of Washington's commitment to cede control as soon as possible. The draft resolution, which is not expected to be put up for a vote until after the new Iraqi government is announced, will also underscore that the use of Iraq's resources, most notably oil, will be determined by Iraqis, U.S. officials said.
Before the Memorial Day weekend, the White House hopes Brahimi and U.S. presidential envoy to Iraq Robert D. Blackwill will put the most critical final piece in play by announcing the new interim government, although this will depend on wrapping up complicated negotiations among Iraq's ethnic and religious factions. The joint U.N.-U.S. team thought it had a tentative slate for the top four jobs until Kurdish leaders balked at settling for the vice presidency, forcing further talks, U.S. officials said.
To turn the tide, the Bush administration also hopes to generate movement on the two other most pressing issues in the volatile Middle East -- the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and the U.S. democracy initiative for the greater Middle East.
"The only way out of this hole is to keep our promises: to punish the people responsible for Abu Ghraib, to really turn over authority and full sovereignty to Iraqis, and to help the Palestinians take advantage of the opportunity offered by Israel [to turn over the Gaza strip] and to support reform," said the senior State Department official.
To shore up the coalition, Bush will also begin hosting leaders of countries that have troops in Iraq. The United States is intent on stopping contributing nations from pulling out after the June 30 handover, because some nations have mandates to stay in Iraq only until the U.S.-led occupation ends and sovereignty is restored. Spain and Honduras have withdrawn troops, partly in response to the escalating violence.
Bush will host Salvadoran President Francisco Flores on Thursday and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Friday, the White House announced last week. Among European nations, Denmark has been stalwart in its support for the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq -- a stark contrast to France, Germany and Russia, which opposed the war to topple Saddam Hussein.