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Powell gives bleak assessment of Iraq security problems

January 13, 2005

by Guy Dinmore in Washington

Published: January 13 2005

Colin Powell, outgoing secretary of state, says he would like to see US troops leave Iraq “as quickly as possible” but that the strength of the insurgency does not allow the Bush administration to set a timeframe for a withdrawal this year.

Mr Powell told National Public Radio yesterday the US leadership had been “in almost non-stop meetings for the last couple of days” reviewing the security problem while coalition forces were adjusting their “tactics and strategy and deployments”.

“It’s not possible right now to say that by the end of 2005, we’ll be down to such and such a number. It really is dependent upon the situation,” he said, referring to the training of the new Iraqi army and police.

Mr Powell’s bleak assessment, less than three weeks before Iraqis are due to elect a parliament, reflects what advisers close to the administration and former officials describe as an understanding in the State Department and Pentagon of the depth of the crisis.

But, they say, this is not a view accepted by President George W. Bush.

One counterinsurgency expert said Donald Rumsfeld, defence secretary, had a “brutally accurate” picture of the situation and the potential dangers.

But a member of an influential neoconservative policy group said that such warnings “stop well short of the president”.

He said Mr Rumsfeld, criticised for the conduct of the war, had an interest in hiding the true picture from the president.

According to Chas Freeman, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and head of the independent Middle East Policy Council, Mr Bush recently asked Mr Powell for his view on the progress of the war. “We’re losing,” Mr Powell was quoted as saying. Mr Freeman said Mr Bush then asked the secretary of state to leave.

A senior White House official said he had no knowledge of such an exchange and added: “The president acknowledges there are significant challenges. “He does not characterise them as insurmountable. Others do.”

Analysts are concerned that with the departure of Mr Powell and his replacement by Condoleezza Rice, the president’s loyal national security adviser, the White House will be further shielded from dissent.

Mr Powell, who often clashed with Mr Rumsfeld over policy towards Iraq and Iran, seemed to allude to this when he said he had been “secure enough” in his relationship with the president to argue his point of view.

“A president is not well served when he has people in his cabinet who have points of view but are not prepared to argue those points of view forcefully for fear that it might leak or it looks like members of the cabinet are squabbling,” Mr Powell told Fox News.

The White House is stressing the January 30 election is just the start of a process that is scheduled to lead to a national referendum on a constitution by October and another parliamentary election by December.

Mr Powell said there must be Sunni representation in the government to be formed after the elections. This reflects US efforts to persuade the main parties of the Shia majority, who are expected to sweep the polls, to co-opt members of the Sunni minority into the administration and the drafting of the constitution.

US leverage rests upon awareness among the Shia that their government is unlikely to survive a civil war without continued US military support.

High anxiety over the elections is also evident among Arab allies of the US. Karim Kawar, Jordan’s ambassador to Washington, said that he feared that elections without solid Sunni participation would lead to an “Islamic republic of Iraq”.

“That’s not what the American taxpayers hoped for,” he said.

Charles Boyd, a former general who had opposed the war, said he was dismayed at the administration’s lack of commitment in fighting it.

“Our government is not mobilised for war of this size and complexity. We are acting on a ‘business as usual’ format,” he said.

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