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No strings commitment
Media General News Service


June 16, 2006

WASHINGTON -- In his surprise visit to Baghdad last week, President Bush extended his commitment to the new government in Iraq indefinitely and asked for very little in return.

The president indicated on his return no immediate plans to remove any of the 132,000 troops from Iraq. He said he had stood firm in his commitment and was determined not to be defeated in Iraq by the "international jihadist movement."

For Iraq's newly installed prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, this meant that all he had to do to keep U.S. troops on his soil last week was to extend his hand, shake Bush's and smile. Bush asked him to "set an agenda" and "do some hard things," but he didn't get much more specific than that.

On his return, the president said he had won a vague promise from al-Maliki to make things better for Iraq's discontented Sunni minority.

It looks like al-Maliki put the brakes on de-Baathification, the U.S.-imposed, all-purpose remedy for wiping the nation clean of Saddam Hussein's influence. The problem with it has been that that it also rid Iraq of skilled, mainly Sunni civil servants and police. Baghdad, the capital and cultural center of the country, has steadily deteriorated into chaos.

Bush said he came away "impressed by the sophisticated nature of that discussion" on how to treat Baath party members.

But this appears to be one of the few steps toward moderation that Bush seemed to push. Otherwise, he took pains to let the new Iraqi government set its own agenda, despite criticism it was missing windows of opportunity to make changes in the new Iraqi constitution to widen Sunni participation in the government and prevent total domination by the Shiites.

Instead, Iraqi Shiites are pushing for amnesty for violence against U.S. and other foreign troops on Iraqi soil. That's strange treatment for the United States, which just surpassed the 2,500 mark in lives given in Iraq.

The Iraqis have somehow gotten the idea that it is less of a crime for Iraqis defending their homeland to blow up American troops with roadside bombs. And it appears that the new government in Baghdad supports this moral boundary for amnesty.

Bush had no money to give Baghdad for such concepts. Before he left, he and his advisers met at Camp David and decided against any widening of U.S. financial commitments to Iraq for the very good and simple reason that the American cupboard is bare.

Bush brought with him one new idea to share Iraq's oil wealth, now heavily concentrated in Shiite areas, with the oil-barren Sunni areas. It would be based on Alaska's trust system, which enables everyone to get a piece of the pie regardless of where they live.

But there is very little pie to share, since Iraq's oil fields are constantly pilfered and under attack.

Staying alive seems to be life's goal over there. More checkpoints and thousands more Iraqi troops backed by coalition forces were ordered onto the streets in Baghdad last week to enforce dusk to dawn curfews.

With Baghdad virtually an armed camp and the country on the brink of civil war, Bush arrived on five minutes notice and proclaimed to al-Maliki that "we will keep our commitment."

With no more money to give Iraq, the only commitment he had to give was troops.

Bush considers the troop commitment open ended. Although there had been speculation the force would be reduced by the end of the year to 100,000, Bush emphasized he would do whatever his commanders in the field tell him is necessary until he leaves office in January, 2009.

Now that al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, has died after a U.S. bombing raid, new suicide bomb attacks in Baghdad are expected. This time, the Iraqi security forces say they are ready for al-Qaeda and won't have to use indiscriminate house-to-house operations that enraged the Sunnis a year ago and led to another vicious cycle of terror.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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