The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad said Tuesday Iraqi officials are committed to a timeline for making key decisions that will determine the country's future. His statement comes amid increasing pressure for progress in Iraq with rising violence in the final weeks of the U.S. congressional election campaign. But U.S. officials acknowledge the situation is difficult, and some analysts say it may not be possible to create the stable democracy the Bush administration wants to see in Iraq.
The combination of the highest U.S. casualty toll in Iraq in a year and the U.S. elections on Nomvember 7 has created renewed pressure in recent days for some action to end the violence and begin to withdraw U.S. troops. Officials have responded to the pressure with a series of statements indicating they are working hard on the issue, and also reminding Americans that the situation is complex and difficult, and requires time and patience.
The latest effort came on Tuesday at a news conference in Baghdad by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. "My message today is straightforward: despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible, and can be achieved on a realistic timetable," he said.
'Timetable' is a controversial word these days, along with 'timeline,' 'benchmark' and 'milestone.' But they're all being used by critics of the Bush administration, and now by officials, too. Some critics want a timetable for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, others only call for benchmarks or milestones to be set as goals for progress on specific issues.
President Bush has resisted pressure for a withdrawal timetable, but U.S. officials are now accepting the notion of setting some sort of schedule for solving some of the country's difficult problems. Ambassador Khalilzad says those problems include reaching a sectarian accord, reining in militias, reducing violence, holding provincial elections and enacting a law to share the country's oil wealth.
"Because of the pressure from the Iraqi people, our engagement, their own determination to succeed, they have committed themselves to a timeline for making some of those decision that I described. We believe that in the course of the next 12 months, assuming that the Iraqi leaders deliver on the commitments that they have made, and I don't have any reason to doubt that, there should be a national compact in place by that time," he said.
On security issues, General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said at Tuesday's news conferencc the situation is difficult, especially around Baghdad, and he also needs a year or more. "It's going to take another 12 to 18 months or so until I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security," he said.
And the general says even then the Iraqis would need some level of support from U.S. forces.
But many analysts are skeptical of even that loose a timeframe for bringing stability to Iraq. Among them is Wayne White of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. He was the State Department's chief Iraq analyst from 2003 until last year, and worked on Iraq issues at the department for more than 20 years.
"Trying to get the Iraqis to agree to timetables is very artificial because there's just no real reason to expect that they're going to meet the deadlines. And then you have to be prepared to take action related to that. What are you going to do, say that in that case we're going to begin phasing out? What measures are you prepared to take in order to put more pressure on them?," he said.
White says the Iraqi government depends for its survival on the same Shiite parties that run some of the militias that are causing the violence, making it difficult for the prime minister to pressure those parties. He also says Iraq's new government institutions are too ineffective to have much positive impact on people's lives any time soon.
Speaking at the Pentagon later Tuesday, the top U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace endorsed the idea of timetables, as long as they provide a range of dates for accomplishing their goals. He said timetables provide incentives to governments to get things done, and force them to adjust their plans as needed and explain their performance to their people. But, answering a reporter's question, General Pace echoed President Bush's view that no punishments should be included in the timing projections.
"I disagree with the premise of your question because it sounds like you're not working with your friends, that somehow if your friends don't perform to a certain standard, of which you are part, that you're going to penalize each other for doing that. No," he said.
At the conservative Heritage Foundation, Middle East analyst James Phillips disagrees, saying some sort of consequences, perhaps impacting individual ministers, would be a good thing. "I think that would be an important way of gaining leverage to propel the Iraqis forward and give them stronger incentives and disincentives to follow through on what they've promised to do," he said.
Even with all the political and security difficulties in Iraq, General Pace says a stable, democratic Iraq can still be created, and analyst James Phillips agrees with him on that. "I think it's very possible, and I think the Iraqi government will probably prove to be much tougher than most Americans estimate," Phillips said.
But at the Middle East Institute, Wayne White is not convinced, calling the Iraqi government's capabilities 'frail' in the face of huge problems. "I'm not so sure the situation is salvageable at this point. I'm becoming very discouraged at what I'm seeing," he said.
The people who make the U.S. policy toward Iraq, and those who critique it, agree at least that the solution to the country's problems must involve security, political agreements and economic development. But they disagree sharply on whether the current U.S. and Iraqi policies are moving the country in the right direction, and even on whether Iraq's deep-seated sectarian problems can be solved on any sort of foreseeable timeline or timetable.