TWO separate events unfolded in Iraq last week that could signal the beginning of the end of the Anglo-US engagement in that country. The first event was the unexpected visit to the war-torn country by US President George W Bush, the American presidentís third visit to Iraq.
His first visit came just weeks after the launch of the invasion when the president prematurely declared victory and announced the end of major combat operations.
As the following four years have demonstrated, the president could not have been more off the mark. The presidentís second visit came midway through the war. It was intended to show the presidentís support and to share a Thanksgiving dinner with US forces serving in Iraq. It too was carried out in utmost secrecy and lasted just a few hours, during which time the president never left the heavily defended Baghdad Airport. His third, and in all probability, his last visit to Iraq on Monday, was meant to deliver a message to the Iraqi government, and particularly to Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.
The message was that time was running out; that American patience was wearing thin; and that US forces would not remain indefinitely in Iraq to support his government. The Bush administration, and much of the Washington political establishment, be they Republican or Democratic, are growing more disappointed by the day at the flagrant lack of political progress taking place in Iraq more than four years after the removal of Saddam Hussein. Of a series of 16 benchmarks laid out by the US, only three have been fulfilled to date. On the list of items Washington would like to see become a reality is the law pertaining to the sharing of revenues derived from the countryís oil industry. Iraq, it is worth reminding, sits on the worldís second largest oil reserves. The other major benchmark has to do with enacting the law regarding the reinstatement of former Baathists. If Bush didnít arrive triumphantly this time, nevertheless, Mondayís visit was filled with symbolic messages to the Iraqi leadership and to the insurgents.
It was no coincidence that Bush chose to visit Anbar Province, a former stronghold of Saddam Hussein and a province populated by close to 95 per cent Sunni Muslims. Until quite recently Anbar was one of the most dangerous places in Iraq for US forces. In choosing Anbar Province as the site for his meeting with the Iraqi prime minister, President Bush sent a double message to the Iraqis.
First, the president wanted to demonstrate that the surge of US forces was actually working. Anbar Province had become safe enough for the American president to visit. There was no doubt, too, that Bushís visit included a domestic component. Bushís visit comes a little over a week before the top military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus and the top American civilian in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, are due to deliver before the Congress a report on the state of affairs in Iraq.
In having Maliki, a Shia Muslim, travel to a heavily Sunni populated area, Bush wanted to impress upon the prime minister the importance of including Sunnis in the political process. The other message was directed at both the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province and to Al Qaeda fighters.
While Mondayís visit was not planned as a photo opportunity, insists the White House, nevertheless, the mere fact that the American president was seen walking around a US military compound in the once turbulent province is bound to raise morale among US forces in Iraq as well as to show the public back home that there has been some improvement on the security front.
The second, and in principle unrelated event which occurred roughly around the same time that President Bush visited Iraq was the unexpected withdrawal of British forces from the southern city of Basra. The British Prime Minister Gordon Brown denied reports that British forces in Iraq had pulled back under pressure. Brown said the redeployment of British forces to the Basra Airport was part of the long-standing plan to gradually hand over sectors of the country back to the Iraqi army.
Between the British redeployment and the American presidentís message of urgency to demonstrate some sign of improvement, the unstated message is quite clear: neither British nor US forces wish to remain in Iraq a day longer than is absolutely essential. And in the end they may well end up staying a day or two less than necessary.Claude Salhani is Editor of the Middle East Times and a political analyst in Washington, DC. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.