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Bush is going to leave Iraq for the next president
The Age (AU)
Warwick McFadyen
August 25, 2006

WE'RE not leaving, so long as I'm the President." There in nine words is the exit strategy for the United States involvement in Iraq. Depending on your viewpoint, it's either a commitment or an admission of defeat.

George Bush has another 26 months to run on his presidency, which means that by November 2008, the US will have been in Iraq for almost six years. In a couple of months, America will pass the time it spent fighting in World War II — 45 months.

The time span was noted by Senator Edward Kennedy during a hearing this month of the US Senate Armed Services Committee on Iraq and Afghanistan. The senator also noted the cost of the war: $US400 billion ($A524 billion), 2579 killed, 19,000 wounded. And that's just one side of the coin. Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated at more than 40,000.

Bush also mentioned the C word. Civil, that is, as in civil war. He was concerned about the shadow it cast. But the US strategy was to "help the Iraqi people achieve their objective and their dreams, which is a democratic society". The tactics to realise that dream were another matter. Cut and run or stay. To go "would be a huge mistake". Not only for the Iraqis. "It's in our interests that we help this democracy succeed. A failed Iraq would make America less secure … It would give the terrorists and extremists an additional tool besides safe haven, and that is revenues from oil sales."

The President then fell over himself. After he said "the terrorists attacked us and killed 3000 of our citizens", a question was asked: "What did Iraq have to do with that?"

Bush: "What did Iraq have to do with what?"

Q: "The attack on the World Trade Centre?"

Bush: "Nothing, except for its part of — and nobody has ever suggested in this Administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack … The lesson of September 11 is take threats before they fully materialise." This is the 1 per cent doctrine, enunciated by Vice-President Dick Cheney, which goes that if there's a 1 per cent chance of something happening, treat it as a 100 per cent certainty and respond accordingly. As a point of record, most of the September 11 attackers came from America's great ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia.

No matter. Saddam, a dictator, killer of his countrymen and women, is now on trial and facing a death sentence for crimes against humanity. He was brought to justice because of the US invasion. Yet in the opening of this window for democracy, a spectre grotesque and life-taking has also entered.

It is sectarianism. Last month, about 3500 Iraqis died, according to mortuary and hospital figures. Iraq Body Count, which monitors violent civilian deaths, has calculated that from March last year to this March, 36 people, on average, died each day. In the first year of the invasion it was 20 a day. A total of 789 American soldiers died in the March to March period, according to globalsecurity.org, or two deaths a day.

For months, Iraq has been "sliding towards civil war". At what point on the clicking of death's toll does the situation become "officially" civil war? In the Senate Armed Services hearing, General John Abizaid, commander of the US Central Command, came as close as a military chief has to describing it as such. "I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move towards civil war." The general also noted the insurgency's "resiliency, it's probably going to last for some time even after US forces depart".

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the hearing that civil war was a possibility "but that does not have to be a fact. Shia and Sunni are going to have to love their children more than they hate each other." Pace by name, pace by outlook.

The hearing coincided with the disclosure by William Patey, who recently retired as British envoy to Baghdad, that "the prospect of a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy".

The figures support this. The New York Times reported that the number of roadside bombs last month was the highest ever, and that since January, attacks against the US and Iraqi forces have doubled. Last month, 2625 bombs were found, of which 1666 exploded. That's 53 explosions every day. If this bombardment were not bad enough, there is the question of winning hearts and minds. The US second-in-command in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Peter Chiarelli, admitted recently that "people who were on the fence or supported us … in the last two years or three years have in fact decided to strike out against us. And you have to ask: Why is that? And I would argue in many instances we are our worst enemy."

Certainly Abu Ghraib and Haditha did not help matters.

Senator John McCain commented to the Senate hearing that US deployments in Iraq to cover trouble spots, such as the recent surge in troops into Baghdad, was policy more along the lines of "a game of whack-a-mole". Some game.

Bush this week spoke of Iraq's impact on the US. "These aren't joyous times … and they're straining the psyche of our country." Bush is only echoing one of the latest opinion polls, by the Pew Research Centre, which found Americans were increasingly pessimistic about Iraq, the fall into civil war, and the military's capabilities of preventing it.

The US has about 133,000 troops in Iraq. It hopes that as the Iraq forces get up to speed (they were dismantled by the US during the invasion), then it can gradually withdraw its own.

At what point in the cycle of violence will that occur? One thing's for certain, by then Bush will have left the scene.

Warwick McFadyen is a staff writer.

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