Could the recession end the Iraq war?

John McCain has made a point throughout his campaign of pooh-poohing Barack Obama’s promise to withdraw all U.S. combat forces from Iraq within 16 months of assuming office. McCain has steadfastly refused to set a withdrawal date, suggesting that to do so would be defeatist and vowing instead to bring the troops back when they’ve won. During Wednesday’s debate, McCain saw progress in the fact that U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are close to reaching a Status of Forces agreement governing the future presence of U.S. troops there. But the agreement they’re reportedly close to concluding does, in fact, set a withdrawal date: At the insistence of the Iraqis, it requires that all U.S. forces leave Iraq by the end of 2011. The schedule may be longer than Obama’s, but the Iraqis appear to have walked the Bush Administration back to accept the principle of setting a departure date. The plan reportedly also requires U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq’s cities by next summer, and removes their right to continue the practice of open-ended detention of Iraqi citizens.

The agreement is not yet complete, of course. There are still points of contention over immunity for U.S. forces, and over the Iraqis’ demand for the right to inspect weapons and military equipment being brought into the country “to ensure they are suitable for the security mission”, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki put it in an interview with The Times — i.e. to ensure that Iraq’s territory is not being used as a staging ground for any U.S. action against Iran. The pact will have to be approved by Iraq’s cabinet and parliament, where it could still encounter opposition. Iraqi government officials have also suggested that a new agreement could be negotiated in 2011 if conditions required it.

Still, the deal leaves little doubt that the Iraq war is being drawn to a close —and not necessarily because the U.S. has achieved its benchmarks on the ground. A new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, intended to guide the next U.S. president on the situation there, is reportedly near completion. Reflecting the consensus among the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, the new NIE will reportedly warn that, contrary to the rosy picture of progress stressed by McCain on the campaign trail, the situation in Iraq remains precarious. Although violence has been reduced to its lowest levels since early 2004, U.S. intelligence officials believe that the surge involving an extra 30,000 U.S. combat troops was only one contributing factor. Other key factors in tamping down violence may yet be the cause of further violence and instability; these include the truce declared by the radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the anti-Qaeda alliance the U.S. forged with the Sunni insurgents of the Awakening Movement. Deep distrust remains between the Awakening Movement, many of whose members were aligned with the Saddam regime, and the Shi’ite dominated Maliki government. The recent move by the U.S. to transfer control, and responsibility for paying the wages, of the Awakening militias to Maliki’s central government is likely to exacerbate those tensions. [continued…]

Israel gets real on Iran

On the eve of his departure from political life, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Olmert delivered a stinging parting shot – putting under question not only the wisdom of holding on to Palestinian land, but also the feasibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“We have to make a decision, one that goes against all our instincts, against our collective memory,” he told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Recognizing that no other Israeli leader ever had uttered these words publicly, Olmert went on to declare that “Israel must withdraw from almost all, if not all” of the West Bank to achieve peace.

On Iran, Olmert argued that Israel had lost its “sense of proportion” when stating that it would deal with Iran militarily. “What we can do with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese, we cannot do with the Iranians,” Olmert said, in stark contradiction to his own earlier warnings on Iran as well as the rhetoric of many of his hawkish cabinet members. “Let’s be more modest, and act within the bounds of our realistic capabilities,” he cautioned.

Olmert’s interview dashed the hopes of neoconservatives in Washington hoping for an Israeli post-November surprise through the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. With the U.S. facing a financial crisis and Israel’s lacking the “proportions” to take on Iran, the risk for military confrontation with Iran in the last months of the Bush Administration has decreased significantly, according to most analysts. [continued…]

U.S. policies may have contributed to Iran revolution, study says

A new report based on previously classified documents suggests that the Nixon and Ford administrations created conditions that helped destabilize Iran in the late 1970s and contributed to the country’s Islamic Revolution.

A trove of transcripts, memos and other correspondence show sharp differences over rising oil prices developing between the Republican administrations and Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in the mid-1970s, says a report to be published today in the fall issue of Middle East Journal, an academic journal published by the Washington-based Middle East Institute, a think tank.

The report, after two years of research by scholar Andrew Scott Cooper, zeros in on the role of White House policymakers — including Donald H. Rumsfeld, then a top aide to President Ford — hoping to roll back oil prices and curb the shah’s ambitions, despite warnings by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that such a move might precipitate the rise of a “radical regime” in Iran.

“The shah is a tough, mean guy. But he is our real friend,” Kissinger warned Ford, who was considering options to press the monarch into lowering oil prices, in an August 1974 conversation cited by the report. “We can’t tackle him without breaking him.” [continued…]

Pakistani politicians divided over action on terror

A deep rift over anti-terror policy has opened up within Pakistan’s political class, as extremist violence and an economic crisis push the country to the verge of collapse. A special session of parliament called by the government to forge a political consensus on the “war on terror” has backfired spectacularly as parties, including some in the ruling coalition, denounced the alliance with Washington and Nato rather than backing the army to take on the Pakistani Taliban.

A party in the coalition government, the religious Jamiat-Ulama-I-Islam party, has even demanded that, as parliamentarians had received a presentation from the army, Pakistan’s Taliban movement should also be allowed to address them. It comes as the political and economic situation worsens, with intensified suicide bomb attacks and an alarming depletion in Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves. The country is seeking an emergency $10bn bailout from the international community, while a severe shortage of electricity is crippling business and punishing households.

Critics of the government, which is led by controversial president Asif Ali Zardari, complain that there is a paralysis of decision-making and policy. A leaked US top secret National Intelligence Estimate on Pakistan concludes that the country is “on the edge”. A US official was quoted summing up the assessment as “no money, no energy, no government”. [continued…]

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