A revised U.S. military plan envisions establishing security at the local level in Baghdad and elsewhere by the summer of 2008, although it likely would take another year to get Iraqi forces ready to enforce any newfound stability, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Known as the Joint Campaign Plan, developed in tandem by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and his political counterpart in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, it reflects a timetable starkly at odds with the push by many American legislators to wind down U.S. involvement in a matter of months.
Petraeus and Crocker are due to testify before Congress in September on how the current strategy is working and whether it needs to be revised. The strategy was announced in broad terms by President George W. Bush in January, when he ordered five extra Army brigades to Baghdad to help implement it. But the more detailed campaign plan was developed in the months following — not to alter the strategy but to give it depth, with detailed avenues of approach.
Meanwhile, President Bush on Tuesday lashed out at critics who say that al Qaeda's operation in Iraq is distinct from those who attacked the United States in 2001.
"Al Qaeda in Iraq is run by foreign leaders loyal to Osama bin Laden," Mr. Bush said. "Like bin Laden, they are cold-blooded killers who murder the innocent to achieve al Qaeda's objectives."
Citing security details he declassified for his speech, Mr. Bush described al Qaeda's burgeoning operation in Iraq as a direct threat to the United States. In derisive terms, Mr. Bush accused critics in Congress of misleading the American public by suggesting otherwise.
"That's like watching a man walk into a bank with a mask and a gun and saying, 'He's probably just there to cash a check,'" Mr. Bush told troops at South Carolina's Charleston Air Force Base.
Democrats pounced on the president, reports CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod.
"The president is trying to scare the American people into believing that al Qaeda is the rationale for continuing the war in Iraq," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., at a news conference.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq sat down for aon stabilizing Iraq, a session marred by a tense exchange over American allegations that Iran is fueling the violence.
Col. Steve Boylan, chief spokesman for Petraeus, said the revised plan is still in the final editing stages and has not yet been put fully into effect. He said that while it sets an initial goal of achieving localized security by summer 2008, it does not make assumptions about specific levels of U.S. troops between now and then — including how long the five extra brigades will stay.
The campaign plan's timeline was first reported in Tuesday's editions of The New York Times.
Boylan stressed in a telephone interview that like any military campaign plan, this one is subject to revision as conditions on the ground evolve. Thus the summer 2008 goal, he said, should be seen as "a place holder, a mark on the wall," not an immovable commitment.
The plan envisions using locally based security initiatives, such as those that in western Anbar province have proven successful in reducing insurgent violence this year, as a starting point. Such efforts are now under way elsewhere in Iraq, including some parts of Baghdad.
That approach, it is hoped, will encourage movement at the national level to achieve political reconciliation, which is the ultimate objective.
There are early signs, however, that the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is unwilling to move in that direction. His office has expressed anger at recent U.S. efforts to empower local Sunni groups in an alliance against the al Qaeda in Iraq insurgent group — apparently out of suspicion that these Sunni groups will become extralegal militias allied against his government.
The Petraeus-Crocker plan is based on more than military strategy. It factors in a combination of political, economic, security and diplomatic efforts — along the lines Mr. Bush has described in recent months — plus actions to be taken by the Iraqi government. That includes movement on long-stalled legislation on the distribution of oil revenues, plus measures to bring more Sunnis who were members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party into the government, and other measures designed to promote reconciliation and build a government of national unity.
Petraeus began developing the plan shortly after he arrived in Baghdad in February to replace Gen. George Casey, whose campaign plan focused more on transferring security responsibility to the Iraqi government than on establishing security throughout the capital.
Stephen Biddle, who was a member of a group that advised Petraeus last spring on development of the strategy, said in a recent interview that he saw little chance of success if the U.S. military continued to try to establish security, unconditionally, across all of Baghdad.
A better approach, Biddle said, is to use U.S. military power more selectively in a "carrot-and-stick" approach that rewards insurgent groups that choose to accept offers of a cease-fire. They would not be forcibly disarmed; they would choose to stop fighting. Those who refuse to cooperate would be dealt with militarily.
Even that more-nuanced approach, in Biddle's estimation, stands only about a 1-in-10 chance of succeeding.
Many Democrats in the U.S. Congress have argued that the only way to force al-Maliki's government into movement on the political front is to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Some argue this should begin as early as this year, or at least by next spring.