Trusting in the Transition

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 20, 2005

The curtain will soon go up on Act 3 of the American experience in Iraq, even as its original authors scribble away behind the scenes, trying

to determine whether the war eventually ends

as Shakespearean tragedy, Hollywood action

film or cautionary moral fable of hubris and its consequences.

It has had elements of all three, from the lightning march to Baghdad to an Act 2 full of unsettling gore, sinister intrigue and smashed expectations. As tragic scenes drag on interminably on the small-screen stage of nightly television, polls show the national audience glancing nervously for an exit it does not yet see.

The Senate voiced its own criticism of the Bush administration's current muddled text last week by calling on the White House to make 2006 a year of "significant transition" toward "the successful completion of the mission" in Iraq.

The 79-19 vote obviously signals Republican nervousness over Iraq policy a year in advance of congressional elections. But that is only one sign of a quickening sense here and abroad that the next few months open a decisive and new period in President Bush's beleaguered attempt to use Iraq to change the Middle East and the world.

U.S. military commanders are composing their own scenarios that point to a drawdown of 30,000 to 40,000 American troops -- from a current force of about 140,000 -- that will begin before the midterm elections. In private White House meetings Bush has hinted at numbers of that magnitude and roughly corresponding cuts in foreign coalition troops, authoritative sources tell me. Italy's coalition government, facing elections in April, will begin discussions with Washington this week on withdrawing 10 percent or so of Italy's 3,000 troops in Iraq this winter.

The signs of impending change also trigger nervousness among allies. European diplomats have begun probing U.S. officials to determine whether NATO and other allies will face new pressure to shoulder financial and other burdens that the Americans want to lighten for themselves in Iraq's year of transition.

The Europeans are aware that the administration has already put oil-rich Arab states on notice that their relations with Washington will be affected by whether they provide more aid to the permanent Iraqi government that is to emerge from Dec. 15 elections.

Last weekend's sudden, very brief visit by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to Baghdad may also reflect concern in the world organization over being asked to play a larger role in transitional Iraq. Under U.S. and British prodding, Arab League officials also have reluctantly visited the Iraqi capital to meet many of the civilians who will form a new government after the elections.

But U.S. reconstruction and pacification efforts have not moved quickly or smoothly enough to rally the support Washington now seeks from others. The United States is unlikely to get significant help on Iraq from other nations or from multilateral organizations that feel they were ignored or defied by the Bush administration in Act 1.

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