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Quietly, US strategy in Iraq shifting

A report on the 'surge' could help determine momentum.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 9, 2007



Washington

With little fanfare, at least so far, the stage is being set for a post-"surge" Iraq strategy that reduces US ambitions for the Iraq project, even while keeping some US forces there for years to come.

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No decisions have yet been made, and administration officials insist the current strategy that has pumped an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq still must be given time to work. But the contours of a new approach floating around Washington suggest a drawing down of the 160,000 US forces there beginning as early as the end of this year. The thousands that remain would be refocused on training Iraqi security forces and on a long fight against Al Qaeda.

Just how much momentum the new Iraq-strategy snowball has behind it will start to become clearer this week as Congress is to receive an interim report on the performance of the force buildup and as Democrats try to use another funding vote on Iraq to press for faster change.

The new strategy is still in its formative stages in White House discussions, on Pentagon drawing boards, and on congressional desks. It is a source of division in the White House, although President Bush continues to warn against the dangers of any US withdrawal. But it is reflective of political realities in both the US and Iraq.

Time is running short for achieving political consensus in the US on Iraq policy before the 2008 campaign kicks off in earnest, political leaders and experts say. On the other hand, more time is needed to achieve political consensus in Iraq. That leaves an ironic situation where the political clocks of the two countries are not just running at different speeds, as has been said for months, but in different directions.

"What we're seeing is preparation for the post-'surge' period, particularly as it coincides with a critical political cycle culminating in the 2008 elections," says Nikolas Gvosdev, a foreign-policy expert and editor of The National Interest, a foreign-affairs magazine. "The hallmark will be fewer troops, but it will also signal the moving away from the idea of any grandiose transformation of Iraq. Instead, it becomes, 'We're there to fight Al Qaeda.' "

Signs of the growing consensus for a new approach that includes a major reduction in the US footprint in Iraq are visible on several fronts:

•Several prominent Republican senators have recently turned against the White House and are now calling for a change in Iraq strategy. Last week Sen. Pete Domeneci of New Mexico joined Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a respected US foreign-policy specialist, who a week earlier used a Senate speech to call for a new strategy reducing the US presence in Iraq. George Voinovich of Ohio followed Senator Lugar, while John Warner of Virginia is known to be pressuring the White House to change course.

•Defense Secretary Robert Gates is pressing for a post-"surge" Iraq strategy that would rest on a foundation of broad political consensus around the idea of impeding Iraq from becoming a haven of Islamic extremism. Such a strategy would also keep thousands of US troops in Iraq for a long-term battle with Al Qaeda.

•White House officials acknowledge that the administration is already looking beyond the current approach. Mr. Bush hinted at the priority he is likely to give the fight against Al Qaeda in a July 4 speech where he said the US has no choice but to "win" the Iraq fight "for our own sake, for the security of our citizens."

Democrats are hoping to use a Senate defense authorization bill to be taken up this week to press for troop withdrawals to begin as early as the fall.

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