By OLIVIER KNOX
Before the November US elections, President George W. Bush promised never to put US troops “in the crossfire” of Iraq’s warring sectarian groups. Last week, he made clear that his new strategy would do just that.
“This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we’re in,” he told a war-weary US public in his annual State of the Union address, as he defended his decision to send 21,500 more US troops into battle.
Bush gave no ground on that front to the opposition Democrats who harnessed the US public’s anger at the war to take control of the US Congress for the first time in a dozen years, and signalled he would pursue his new strategy over their objections.
But the president’s portrayal of the situation in Iraq seemed to break with his pre-election insistence that he would not leave US forces ensnared between Iraq’s Shiite militias or Sunni insurgent groups.
“Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions,” he assured US voters in an October 25 news conference.
“The reality is that when the president spoke earlier, he was watching a steady rise towards a civil war all through the latter part of 2006,” said Anthony Cordesman, a military affairs and Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.
Now, Bush has given up his “relentless effort to spin the events in Iraq into successes” and has “simply recognized the reality in Iraq,” Cordesman told AFP by telephone.
“The president has effectively admitted that his previous statements were not credible. And if this current set of statements leads to further failures, it will lead to further damage,” he said, adding: “You can admit past failures only if you move on to future success.”
A Republican congressional aide, who requested anonymity, said that Bush’s rhetorical shift reflected the outcome of the November elections, which the aide described as a contest between two competing visions of Iraq.
Voters “heard two stories: One of ‘we’re fighting a civil war in Iraq.’ The other that ‘we’re fighting terrorists overseas so we don’t have to fight them here at home,'” the official said.
“From the results, it was clear more Americans, at least the ones who voted, believed we are in a civil conflict, civil war, whatever you want to call it,” said the aide. “That has become the consensus view.”
Two senior US officials said that Bush’s change in message reflected a change in the situation in Iraq and the overhaul of a US strategy that the president says will put US forces in a supporting role in Baghdad.
“The Iraqis are in the lead,” said White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “But they need our military assistance to help bring security to Baghdad.”
US troops “will support Iraqi troops in all of the districts of Baghdad,” said Johndroe. “Sometimes that means going after Sunni insurgents, sometimes that will mean going after Shiite militias.”
Another senior administration official, who requested anonymity, stressed that the rules of engagement — “whether we will be supporting the Iraqis kicking down doors or supporting from headquarters” — will be decided by the new commander of US forces in Iraq, Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus.
“There is a conscious desire not to, in supporting the Iraqis, make the job more difficult. In some cases, the presence of American forces might be welcomed, in others less so,” said the official.
Bush’s pre-election statement was technically still accurate, because “in our view, we are not going to insert ourselves in the middle of it,” the official said, referring to the deadly cycle of sectarian violence in Baghdad.
Asked how that was possible, the official clarified that US forces would not merely be “caught in firefights” but would actively help Iraqi security go after sectarian and criminal elements that target each other and US soldiers.
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