After taking part in a White House/NSC background-briefing conference call on President Bush’s speech tonight -- the contents of which I regard as essential to America’s security and the prospects for victory in the Middle East -- I believe we still can win in Iraq. That’s right. I believe we can win in the sense of providing security for Iraq’s democratically elected government along with the necessary training and support for the rebuilding Iraqi forces.
Covering slightly less than 20,000 new troops, the military plan will put five U.S. brigades in Baghdad and a sixth in al-Anbar province. There are nine districts in Baghdad, covering both the city’s east and west sides. The president’s plan is to put one battalion -- roughly 800 soldiers -- in each of the nine districts. So, in ballpark numbers, we will be doubling the American troop presence in Baghdad from the current 15,000 level to a new 30,000 level. At least that’s how I do the math.
Importantly, the rules of engagement are going to be loosened significantly. This means no more political interference by the Maliki government in U.S. military operations. Prior to this development, some U.S. coalition operations have in fact been interrupted by Maliki -- in particular when on maneuvers that bumped into the al-Sadr militias.
In effect, the whole war plan has been changed from an American clearing operation -- where Iraqi forces would unsuccessfully attempt to hold that cleared ground -- to a strategy where U.S. forces will clear, hold, and stay. Again, without any political interference from the Iraqi prime minister. There also will be a beefed up “clear and hold” operation in the volatile Anbar region, where local tribes have recently begun to move against al-Qaeda and other enemies.
The White House believes that political progress and reconciliation in Iraq cannot come without better population security -- hence the need for additional U.S. troops and a change in tactics. To me, this is a very good development indeed.
An oil deal also is in the works -- presumably an Alaska-type revenue sharing among Iraq’s three major groups, the Kurds, Sunni, and Shia. There also will be a much greater emphasis on military/civilian cooperation outside the Green Zone and around the country. New money will be injected by both the U.S. and the Iraqis in the cause of job creation and provincial economic activity.
Toward the end of the conference call, up came the subject of Iran. The NSC briefer mentioned “more aggressive steps to counter Iranian influence in Iraq.” I asked if that included military steps. The briefer said she couldn’t go there at this time, but suggested the capture and detainment of Iranians in Iraq, such as occurred in late December, would continue. I am mindful of recent news reports that two U.S. aircraft carrier groups -- the Eisenhower and Stennis -- have been assigned to the Persian Gulf. It sounds to me like the U.S. will be taking a harder line with Iran, one way or another.
While all this is happening it is important to note that oil prices (which have become a political risk-barometer of Middle East tensions) have actually been dropping quite a bit. In fact, in today’s trading, oil fell below $54 a barrel. (Its peak was slightly under $80 last spring and early summer.) Meanwhile, the stock market -- which, of course, has rallied mightily over the last six months -- actually climbed today as details of the president’s plan leaked out.
So let me ask these questions: Are world economies and financial markets applauding Mr. Bush? Are they saying that the change in generals and the American military strategy are good things? And might the markets be hinting that things are about to get a lot better in Iraq as a result of President Bush’s strong actions and leadership?
I’m looking at the lead story in the New York Times right now. The headline reads: “U.S. and Iraqis Hit Insurgents in All-Day Fight.” I like the sound of that. I hope more of the same is coming.