A Blueprint for Withdrawal

WASHINGTON - Proponents of a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq routinely brush off criticisms that their ideas are "irresponsible". But until today, the charge that withdrawal cannot be accomplished responsibly -- and just how that would be done -- has never been coherently answered.

With the release Wednesday of the report "Quickly, Carefully, and Generously: The Necessary Steps for a Responsible Withdrawal from Iraq", withdrawal-minded experts, analysts and politicians sought to pull all the answers together in one document.

The report, written by the organising committee after meetings of the more than 20-member Task Force for a Responsible Withdrawal for Iraq in March, does not address the underlying reasons why the withdrawal option is the best one -- that case, it says, has already been compellingly made -- but rather focuses on how it can be responsibly carried out.

Whenever the topic of withdrawal is broached, said one of three workshop participants from Congress, Rep. Jim McGovern, "the [Pres. George W. Bush] administration screams, 'bloodbath!'" -- raising the spectre of Iraq descending into chaos, igniting regional wars, and, as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has said, al Qaeda "taking a country".

But far-fetched warnings of worst-case scenarios aside, the alternative of, as the report puts it, withdrawing "U.S. troops while pursuing a diplomatic and political solution to Iraq's civil conflict" is out there.

"What we need to argue is how," said McGovern on a media conference call to discuss the report. "The alternative to not doing anything and not talking about this is resigning to the status quo."

The report lays out a comprehensive plan for withdrawal of U.S. forces by internationalising what is currently the U.S. role as the centre of political power and humanitarian aid in Iraq, engaging in regional dialogue to stem outside interference in Iraq and convincing neighbouring friends and foes alike to take a constructive role in reconstruction and development, and fomenting Iraqi reconciliation with international and regional support.

Part of the plan is to create a true national reconciliation between the sometimes fighting and always feuding Iraqi sectarian and political factions to be accomplished by a U.S.-endorsed process of a U.N.-led "pan-Iraqi conference" that would draft an Iraqi national accord.

While the U.S. media often toes the Bush line that al-Maliki is making progress towards reconciliation, the Iraqi government has yet to significantly accommodate other disenfranchised minority political and sectarian groups. Organising committee member Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project disputed this notion -- noting that though the civil war had cooled down, the political structural problems still existed.

"Genuine national reconciliation in Iraq -- which is the key to progress on every other front -- requires addressing these structural political problems," he said.

The Task Force also called for robust diplomacy with all of Iraq's neighbours, including U.S. regional adversaries Syria and Iran.

"[The report] shines a spotlight on many policy ideas that don't get enough attention here in Washington," said the Centre for American Progress' Brian Katulis, "and one of them is the need for stepped-up diplomacy."

Syria and Iran, despite their important role in the region and particularly with Iraq, have yet to be meaningfully engaged by the Bush administration.

"We're changing the rules of the game and we're changing the incentive structure radically for the neighbours to be engaged," said Toensing. He stressed the importance of diplomacy under a U.N. lead and that the Bush administration has made, at best, half-hearted efforts at engagements.

"Iran and Syria would not be approached hat in hand by the U.S.," he said, "but rather, by the U.N. as an equal partner in trying to promote stability in Iraq."

"Wider diplomatic outreach" with all the neighbours, including Sunni powers, "and trying to bring them together into a more comprehensive and sustained security dialogue about Iraq" is an important step towards a constructive regional role, said George Washington University professor Marc Lynch.

The report also calls for a short-term extension of the current U.N. mandate for the presence of foreign troops as a means to cover U.S. troops from prosecution as they prepare to withdraw. The Bush administration, in contrast, plans to sign a controversial bilateral agreement with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to continue the status quo of U.S. troops as an occupying force.

During the initial extension, Caleb Rossiter, counselor to Rep. Bill Delahunt, said on the press call, a longer-term U.N. mandate would be drawn up that would cover the withdrawal and ensuing international involvement.

Part of that, in the even farther long-term, could be a "blue-helmeted peacekeeping force" -- referring to U.N. peacekeepers by the distinctive colour of their helmets. But that prospect is clouded by Iraqi resentment of the U.N. after corrupt programmes that benefited the dictator Saddam Hussein and U.N. sanctions that crippled the country in the 1990s.

Asked by IPS about the issue during the call, Task Force advisory group member Carl Conetta of the Project on Defence Alternatives said that U.S. withdrawal can serve to "alter the spin on blue helmets and troops on the ground." He said that peacekeeping forces would be "invited" by Iraqi authorities.

Rossiter, whose boss, Delahunt, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the Bush-al-Maliki security agreement, said that the U.N. will "need to be able to operate -- as a new force -- directly with the Iraqi government," as opposed to the current set up that has the U.N. now operates through the "true force" of 160,000 U.S. troops.

A Government Accountability Office report earlier this week -- and simultaneously rejected by the Bush administration -- said that some of the administration's markers of success in Iraq had been overstated. In reality, violence is on the rise and Bush and al-Maliki's assertions about the readiness of Iraqi security forces are exaggerated.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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