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Talabani Looks To Iran, Not To Arabs

Washington (UPI) Nov 20, 2005
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is taking two trips within a single week. In the first, this weekend, he flew west to Cairo, and said a lot less than he appeared to; in the second, starting Monday, he is flying east to Tehran and will almost certainly say a lot less than he will do.

Over the weekend, Talabani was in Cairo attending the heavily-advertised Arab League conference on national reconciliation in Iraq. Moderate Sunni Muslim nations traditionally close to the United States like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco are alarmed by both the extreme Sunni Islamist insurgency and the relentless rise of Iranian influence among Iraqi's Shiite majority. They want to see the civil war there ended or defused as quickly as possible.

But while the Kurdish Talabani paid lip service Sunday to opening a new political dialogue with the Sunni insurgents, in practice he continued to rule it out.

"I am committed to listen to them, even those who are criminals and on trial," Talabani told a news conference. But then he added, "But of course that does not mean I will accept what they say."

Talabani tried to strike a note of national reconciliation and inclusiveness at the conference, telling it he was "responsible for all Iraqis" and wanted to "listen... even to criminals"

But on the other hand, he seemed to make this offer a dead letter by ruling out any political participation or real power for either former loyalists of ousted president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party or for the Islamist extremists spearheaded by al-Qaida and its Iraqi operational commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He ruled out explicitly any role for them in Iraq's still nascent political democracy.

In following this course of action, Talabani was being consistent to his own Kurdish nationalist background and to the distrust that Iraq's 60 percent majority Shiite Muslims as well as its 15 percent of Kurds in the north have towards the long dominant Sunni minority in central Iraq that has dominated the country's politics and army for the past 85 years since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the region in 1918.

And sure enough, Talabani is following his visit to Cairo by flying east to the Iranian capital Tehran to start a three day visit Monday, the Iranian Fars news agency reported Sunday.

His visit follows remarkably warm and cordial mutual visits by senior Iranian and Iraqi Shiite national leaders to their respective capitals since July.

For while U.S. influence and prestige in Iraq has remorselessly declined, given the continued inability of the woefully under-strength U.S. forces to contain the Sunni insurgency and protect Iraq's Shiites from its wrath, Iran's influence in the neighboring country has quietly and steadily risen at the same time.

British military intelligence assessments now rate Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand, fiercely anti-American charismatic young leader of the Mahdi Army, as the most influential political figure in all of oil rich southern Iraq. The British assessments are that paramilitary gangs and organizations whose only allegiance, if any is to Iran now weld far more power in the south of the county where the Shiite majority lives than the Iraqi government in Baghdad does.

For that reason as well, Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari are paying ever more respectful attention to every signal that comes out of Tehran, even though new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been making statements at least as extreme, and even more unpredictable than any ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did in his prime. And Ahmadinejad has vastly more military manpower and resources -- including even the real possibility of several nuclear warheads in the future -- than Saddam ever able to grab.

By contrast, Talabani leads an Iraqi government in crisis. With the December elections -- the first under the recently ratified constitution looming -- the Sunni 20 percent minority in the country is more alienated than ever and the Baathist loyalist-Islamist extremist insurgency within that community is running riot, apparently slaughtering Shiites at will.

The disastrously undermanned U.S. troops in Iraq, at around 150,000 in number, would need between three times to as much as four times the manpower they currently have there to break the back of the Sunni insurgency, U.S., Middle Eastern and many European military analysts privately say. These numbers are not plucked from the air: They are based on analyses of the trained military manpower that were needed to defeat or even stalemate major guerrilla insurgencies through the 20th century.

Also, the continued lack of military effectiveness of the much touted new Iraqi armed forces is now taking center stage in the U.S. political debate. A new article by James Fallows in the November issue of "The Atlantic" magazine paints a devastating picture of an Iraqi army and police force that remains ineffectual and in essentially defenseless against continued Sunni insurgent attacks.

Far from taking the pressure off U.S. forces in Iraq and taking over the main burden of counter-insurgency operations from them, the Iraqi armed forces remain almost totally unable to carry out serious combat operations against serious opposition without U.S. protection and support.

Official military testimony given to the Senate Armed Services Committee at the end of September revealed that only a single battalions out of the 119 organized so far in the Iraqi army and security forces is capable of operating fully on their own.

It was not meant to be this way. When U.S. and Iraqi forces launched "Operation Lightning" in Baghdad in May, it was meant to break the back of insurgent operations in the Iraqi capital of five million people. More than 40,000 troops from the new Iraqi army were involved. President George W. Bush at the time publicly expressed confidence it would hammer the insurgency.

Instead, the operation did not even marginally dent insurgent capabilities. As documented in UPI's weekly Iraq Benchmarks column, apart from a few all too short lulls -- usually measured in days, none lasting longer than two weeks -- the number, frequency and casualties inflicted by multiple fatality bomb attacks -- as the large suicide car bombs are known -- in the capital has remorselessly risen since.

The worst month yet was September with 46 such attacks throughout Iraq, a nation only the size of California with half its population. October was almost as bad, 39 such bomb attacks. And November looks set to outstrip both.

Fallows' article in "The Atlantic" brings all these failures and weaknesses of the rapidly raised Iraqi armed forces to the fore in the political debate in Washington. He wrote that currently the insurgents are killing an average of around 10 Iraqi police and soldiers per day.

In fact, according to official U.S. and Iraqi figures collated by the Iraq Index Project of the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank, the rate at which they were being killed in the first 16 days of this month was 5.5 per day. That is not nearly as bad as 10 per day: But it is still bad enough.

Also, not all serious American analysts share Fallows' pessimism about the Iraqi army. Respected military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies believes that in fact much of the training and deploying of the new Iraqi forces is now going much better and there is still real possibility they could become an effective force on a significant scale next year.

However, even the major issue of how effective or ineffective the Iraqi army is going to be may pale compared to the importance of what Talabani did not say publicly in Cairo this weekend and what he might say privately in Tehran this week.

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Democrats Propose Pullout From Iraq, Battle White House
Washington (AFP) Nov 17, 2005
Democrats and the White House traded fresh salvos over US Iraq policy Thursday, as a top Democratic lawmaker introduced a bill demanding an immediate withdrawal of US troops there.

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