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    Middle East
     Jan 23, 2008
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A salvo at the White House
By Mark Perry

For military officers in the Pentagon's E-Ring (where the most important defense issues are decided), the shift in the public mood has been nearly miraculous: last September, on the eve of General David Petraeus' Congressional testimony on the George W Bush administration's 'surge' strategy, the American electorate was consumed by the war in Iraq.

Now, just four months later, that same electorate has shifted its attention to the 2008 elections. Public polls reflect the shift. Iraq no longer tops the list of issues of concern to Americans - its

place having been usurped over worries about the economy - and is competing for attention with healthcare and immigration. (The "war on terror" is a poor seventh - a stunning turnabout from the two years following September 11, 2001.) But the perceptible fall-off in public attention from foreign policy to domestic issues is hardly a palliative for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or America's highest-ranking combatant commanders, all of whom continue to deal with the continuing uncertain military situation Iraq.

The fact that the Iraq war has been pushed off the front pages of America's newspapers has given the US military a seeming respite from the almost endless spate of disastrous stories coming out of the Middle East, as well as the almost endless round of embarrassing questions from the press about what they intend to do about it.

But military officers say that the American public should not be fooled: the relative quiet in Iraq - and it is, after all, only a "relative quiet" - does not mean the "surge" has worked, or that the problems facing the US military have somehow magically gone away. Quite the opposite. For while the American public is consumed by the campaign for the presidency, the American military is not. Instead, they are as obsessed now, in January of 2008, with the war in Iraq as they were then, in 2003 - except that now, many military officers admit, the host of problems they face may, in fact, be much more intractable.

First contact
"Don't let the quiet fool you," a senior defense official says. "There's still a huge chasm between how the White House views Iraq and how we [in the Pentagon] view Iraq. The White House would like to have you believe the 'surge' has worked, that we somehow defeated the insurgency. That's just ludicrous. There's increasing quiet in Iraq, but that's happened because of our shift in strategy - the 'surge' had nothing to do with it."

In part, the roots of the disagreement between the Pentagon and White House over what is really happening in Iraq is historical. Senior military officers contend that the seeming fall-off in in-country violence not only has nothing to do with the increase in US force levels, but that the dampening of the insurgency that took hold last summer could have and would have taken place much earlier, within months of America's April 2003 occupation of Baghdad.

Moreover, these officers contend, the insurgency might not have put down roots in the country after the fall of Baghdad if it had not been for the White House and State Department - which undermined military efforts to strike deals with a number of Iraq's most disaffected tribal leaders. These officers point out that the first contact between high-level Pentagon officials and the nascent insurgency took place in Amman, Jordan, in August of 2003 - but senior Bush administration officials killed the talks.

A second round of meetings, this time with leaders of some of al-Anbar province's tribal chiefs, took place in November of 2004, but again senior administration officials refused to build on the contacts that were made. "We made the right contacts, we said the right things, we listened closely, we put a plan in place that would have saved a lot of time and trouble," a senior Pentagon official says. "And every time we were ready to go forward, the White House said 'no'."

At the center of these early talks was a group of Iraqis led by Sheikh Talal al-Gaood, a Sunni businessman with close ties to Anbar's tribal leaders. Gaood, who died of a heart ailment in March of 2006, was a passionate Iraqi patriot who feared growing al-Qaeda influence in his country. Speaking over coffee from his office in Amman in 2005, Gaood was enraged by the "endless mistakes" of the US leadership. "You [Americans] face a Wahhabi threat that you cannot even begin to fathom," he said at the time, and he derided White House "propaganda" about the role of Syria in fueling the insurgency.

Gaood, looking every bit the former Ba'athist - complete with suspenders and Saddam Hussein-like mustache was particularly critical of what he called "the so-called counter-insurgency experts among Washington policymakers who think they know Iraq but don't." As he argued: "The guys who come through here, very educated, come in their brown robes and say they are going to Iraq to kill the Americans. They are not Syrians. They are Wahhabis. They are from Saudi Arabia. But if you talk to American officials, it is like they don't exist."

That might have been true for civilian policymakers, but it wasn't true for the military - who were beginning to take heavy casualties from armed insurgents in Sunni areas. Throughout 2004 and 2005, a group of senior US military officers, including high-ranking US Marine Corps commanders, attempted to expand their ties in western Iraq through Gaood and the network of leaders he provided them.

But these commanders continued to run into opposition to their program from then-National Security Council director Condoleezza Rice, who maintained her opposition to their program after she became secretary of state. L Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, who had suspended the Ba'ath army and was intent to cleanse Iraq of its Ba'athist influence, also opposed the program through all of 2004. "Bremer was just nuts about any meetings with any insurgents, any Ba'athists, anyone he didn't approve," a Pentagon official notes, "and Condi backed him up".

By the end of 2005, Rice's opposition to any opening to the Sunni leadership in Iraq became almost obsessive, according to currently serving senior military officers. In one incident, now notorious in military circles, Rice "just went completely crazy" when she learned that a marine colonel had dispatched combat helicopters to help a "a Sunni sheikh" in Fallujah fight what the sheikh called an "imminent al-Qaeda threat".

As a senior Pentagon official now relates: "The Sunni leader literally picked up the telephone one day and called the ranking colonel at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF)and pleaded with him, 'I need help and I need it now. Al-Qaeda is killing my tribe'." The marine colonel in question was John Coleman, the chief of staff to the same unit that had gone into Fallujah to fight the insurgency after the killing of four US security contractors in April of 2004.

"Rice was just enraged with Coleman and with the marines," a senior Pentagon officials say. "She said, 'you have to stop all of that right now and you can't do it unless you have State Department permission and the permission of the Iraqi government'. Well, the marines weren't about to do that. They were taking a lot of casualties and they were fed up. And they just concluded that it was their war and not hers," a senior Pentagon civilian recently noted. "So they just ignored her and went ahead anyway."

In the wake of his marines-to-the-rescue efforts, Coleman and the 1st MEF began a program of cooperation with Fallujah's leaders, making a broad range of contacts with local officials who were fearful of al-Qaeda's influence in their city. The marine commanders in the 1st MEF were under no illusions, a Pentagon official now says - they were "engaged in talks with the insurgents, people who had been killing American soldiers since the fall of Baghdad".

The tipping point
Coleman's action might well have ended his career, if it had not been for then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose lack of respect for Rice bordered on the neurotic, and Coleman's commanding officer, Marine Lieutenant General James T Conway. Conway, an oversize Arkansan who sports a carpet of combat ribbons, was not only a Coleman partisan, he had been angered by orders to send his marines into Fallujah in April of 2004 to take on the city's insurgents, a point he made clear to the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran, five months after the attack: "When we were told to attack Fallujah, I think we certainly increased the level of animosity that existed," Conway said.

Conway told Chandrasekaran he preferred engagement with Fallujah's leaders to confrontation, but that he was bound to follow orders - which had come down to his superior, army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, from the White House. Conway protested to Sanchez that going into Fallujah "with guns blazing" was the worst thing his marines could do, but Sanchez would hear none of it. "I have my orders, and now you have yours," Sanchez pointedly said.

Months later, Conway was still seething: "We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah: that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge. Would our system have been better? Would we have been able to bring over the people of Fallujah with our methods? You'll never know that for sure, but at the time we certainly thought so."

The tight circle of Pentagon civilians around Rumsfeld (inherited and largely kept intact by Robert Gates), which had been pushing for an opening to Anbar's tribal leaders (who had been talking to Gaood in Amman, and through him to some of Anbar's tribal leaders) now cite the Coleman incident as perhaps the key "tipping point" in the military's shift in strategy in Iraq. 

Continued 1 2 

The corpse on the gurney (Jan 19, '08)

All together now, US troops stand firm (Jan 10, '08)

1. How the Pentagon planted a false story

2. Tears on Wall Street

3. Militants make a claim for talks 

4. 'War of ideas' claims neo-con casualty

5. Indiana Jones meets
the Da Vinci Code

6. Europe faces up to Iranian threat

7. Clowns and Filipino Monkeys

8. India's 'cheapest car'
comes at a cost

9. Let gold yell for you

10. Gulf allies turn their backs
on Bush

11. The 'war on terror' moves East

12. Are the levees starting
to break?

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Jan 17, 2008)


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