Blair and Bush isolated over Iraq's direction

By Colin Brown, Rupert Cornwell

United States President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were looking more isolated than ever as the ground shifted further under their strategy of remaining in Iraq "until the job is done".

The President and the Prime Minister were left clinging to the dream of establishing a lasting democracy in Iraq as their advisers urged them to look for a more realistic exit strategy.

The calls came as roadside bombs and enemy fire killed eight soldiers and one Marine in and around Baghdad yesterday, raising to 67 the number of US troops killed in October and American military losses to nearly 2800.

A leaked report by the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former US Secretary of State James Baker, a close friend of the Bush family, paved the way for a large-scale withdrawal of US forces and a dramatic shift of US policy. It suggested that instead of the "stay the course" policy, Bush could extricate the US from Iraq by removing US forces to bases outside Iraq.

In an even more spectacular u-turn, the advisers are believed to suggest that Iran and Syria could be invited to co-operate in the stabilisation of lawless Iraq. That was implicitly rejected by White House spokesman Tony Snow, who said the Administration would not "subcontract" management of the war to outside advisers.

But Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told the BBC that violence in Iraq could end "within months" if Iran and Syria joined efforts to stabilise the country, and two high-profile Republican senators separately called for a change of course.

"We clearly need a new strategy," said Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a possible 2008 presidential candidate.

John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Iraq was "drifting sideways" and that if there were no improvement within two or three months, then policy would have to change.

That deadline coincides with the expected publication of the conclusions of Baker's Iraq Study Group around the end of the year. Support for the war is at its lowest ebb and top Republicans warned that the present state of affairs could not continue.

A new CNN poll found 64 per cent of the public believing the war was a mistake - more than at any time since the US-led invasion in March 2003.

In the run-up to the invasion, Baker warned Bush against attacking the country without the backing of a large international coalition like the one Baker helped assemble for the Gulf War in 1991. But he said that an immediate withdrawal from Iraq would lead to "the biggest civil war you've ever seen".

Bush's approval rating is close to all-time lows, three weeks before mid-term elections on November 7 at which the Republicans face the loss of one or both Houses of Congress.

Senior Labour figures in Britain are hoping a shift of opinion in the US could signal a turning point to force Blair to revise his own approach.

Last week, Blair was urged to scale down his ambitions for Iraq by by the chief of Britain's armed forces, General Sir Richard Dannatt, who also said the presence of British troops was exacerbating the security situation.

On Tuesday, the Home Secretary, John Reid also broke ranks by saying at a private meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party that foreign policy was contributing to the radicalisation of young Muslims in Britain.

Yesterday Blair resisted the calls for a change of strategy.

"You can't end up in a situation where you say, when we are on the side of ordinary, decent Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan who want their own democratic government, when we are there at the behest of those governments with a full UN resolution, when we are protecting those against people who are driving car bombs into markets and mosques and so on, that we somehow are causing their extremism. It's absurd and you won't defeat this extremism until you take that argument head on."

- INDEPENDENT, additional reporting REUTERS

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 30 Jul 2014 12:15:26 Processing Time: 865ms