A Sign of Things to Come?
What Bush’s surprise visit to Iraq tells us about Petraeus’s upcoming report to Congress
Khue Bui for Newsweek
Bush meets with U.S. troops in Iraq
Sept. 3, 2007 – It looks like the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass. President George Bush flew into Iraq this afternoon, only a week before General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are scheduled to testify before the U.S. Congress. A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was tightlipped about the details of the trip but news reports said that Bush had flown into Al Asad airbase. That choice of destination could itself be a good indicator of what’s coming in the congressional testimony next week.
Al Asad airbase is located in Anbar province, where there has been a significant drop in violence since the so-called “surge” kicked off earlier this year. Petraeus will undoubtedly highlight the success of recruiting tribemen to fight extremists in the province, particularly in the violence-plagued capital Ramadi, next week. The White House doesn’t need Karl Rove to figure out that this is the message to hit if you want to rally flagging support for the Iraq war. Though the plan is full of potential pitfalls–the tribesmen could easily turn their guns on government security forces or American troops again–it is one of the few positive developments in Iraq in recent months.
This is the president’s third trip to Iraq since 2003 and both of the earlier trips were more about photo-ops than substantive meetings. (one memorable photo from 2003 was a beaming Bush holding a roast turkey on a platter at a military chow hall.) The missing photo from this trip so far is that of Bush with the normally dour-faced Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. There has been a good bit of sniping between Baghdad and Washington in recent weeks and the president’s choice of Anbar rather than the Iraqi capital as his first stop on the visit probably won’t help ease the tensions. Maliki has only reluctantly endorsed the U.S. military plan to work with the tribes and former Sunni insurgents against extremists. Bush and his heavyweight entourage, which includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, will undoubtedly discuss political reconciliation with Maliki and members of his government. But the reality is that the government has taken few concrete steps on the issue and a much-discussed reform of the de-Baathification law, aimed at appeasing Sunnis, is still in limbo. The U.S. delegation has even less of a chance of getting through to Maliki if he interprets the Anbar stop as a snub.
While Bush’s trip was undoubtedly well-coordinated with U.S. military commanders, it’s unclear how much of the planning included liaison with the British military: their troops pulled back from their last garrison in Basra, southern Iraq, to an airbase on the outskirts of the city today. The Brits say the move had been planned for months but it’s hard to downplay the significance of the troop shift as many Iraqi fighters in the city will probably use the opportunity to declare victory. There have been disturbing signs of unrest between rival Shiite groups across the south in recent weeks. Heavy fighting between government security forces, mostly drawn from supporters of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), and the follower of cleric Moqtada al Sadr, left dozens dead in Karbala last week. The fighting between Shiite groups, who form a majority in the country, could easily offset any successes further north.
Today’s visit will most likely be Bush’s last trip to Iraq as president and appears to be aimed more at domestic U.S. consumption than anything else. But the real judgement about the progress of the surge, and the war itself, may be left to the one group that president Bush will likely not see much of today: ordinary Iraqis.