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The US' shifting calculus in the Middle East
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By Fu Mengzi

US forces in Iraq have been facing a dilemma for quite some time now. US President George W. Bush finally said on September 14 in a televised address that he had accepted Major General David Howell Petraeus' proposal to pull 30,000 troops out of Iraq by mid-2008. This was the first development in Bush's Iraq policy we had seen in a while.

Bush has steadfastly refused to pull US forces out of Iraq and said he would not even consider a timetable for such a move. To him, having US forces leave Iraq would send the wrong signal to terrorists and religious extremists, while making the mess in the Gulf region worse. It could even allow Iraq to become a new hotbed for terrorism and threaten the US' national security.

In a speech delivered at a Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention gathering in Kansas City on August 22, he said: "Three decades later, there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left."

The thought behind this statement is that Bush did not want to repeat a past mistake by taking a hasty decision when neither charging ahead nor falling back sounded good.

However, the situation in Iraq has not allowed Bush to go as far as he would perhaps like. Since they invaded Iraq in 2003, US forces have run up a bill of more than $500 billion, with more than 3,700 service people killed and 21,000 injured.

The war has lasted almost as long as World War II, but the security situation in Iraq has yet to improve. The perception that the US-backed Iraqi government does not represent the people of Iraq has led to fierce conflicts among various religious sects throughout the country, giving terrorist forces an opportunity to enter Iraq and cause havoc.

According to the United Nations, thousands of Iraqi civilians die violent deaths every month, and 2 million people have lost their homes. Early last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the United Kingdom, despite its close ties with the US, would pull 1,000 of its troops out of Iraq before the end of this year.

This was precisely why the war was the dominant issue during the US Congressional mid-term elections last November and cost the Republican Party dearly, as it lost majority rule in both the House and Senate.

Meanwhile, attacks by the Democratic Party and some Republican lawmakers on Bush's Iraq policy have shown no sign of abating, as the situation in Iraq has resisted improving despite the "surge" campaign Bush launched early this year when he sent more troops to the war-torn country.

A public survey by US, British and Japanese media entities in September found 70 percent of Iraqis thought the country's security situation was getting worse, while 57 percent of them said they "could understand" the attacks on US and UK forces and 47 percent demanded an immediate pullout of US forces from Iraq.

It is clear that US forces cannot remain fighting unseen enemies at the expense of US taxpayers forever. Pulling out has to be on Washington's political agenda by now, especially with the presidential election right around the corner and domestic pressure mounting by the day. This is something Bush cannot take lightly.

Bush's announcement that he will reduce US forces in Iraq next year will help placate the anti-war crowd at home and tamp down on criticism from his rivals in Congress, but his planned partial pullout refers only to the 30,000 reinforcements he ordered into Iraq at best. That means his limited pullout is just a symbolic gesture, which hardly suggests a policy U-turn.

The question people would probably like to ask next is: What will the 130,000 US troops still in Iraq do?

I have examined the issue from the geopolitical angle, weighing the interests in controlling Middle East oil resources and in preventing regional hegemony. I have come to the conclusion that it would be very difficult in the long run for the US to pull its military forces out of Iraq completely.

Iraq may not be the only reason Washington wants to keep US forces in the region, and Iran is quite likely the next target.

To America, it would appear that an oil- and natural gas-rich Iran hell-bent on developing nuclear power cannot have the peaceful use of nuclear energy in mind. Nuclear weapons must be a goal, too. Separate negotiations between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency and European Union have not gone smoothly, and the United Nations has also seen plans tabled against Tehran.

Iran has repeatedly claimed that its nuclear program is for peaceful uses. However, the US fears Iran could become a top nuclear-capable nation in the Middle East, putting more pressure on Israel.

Iran today remains a "state sponsoring terrorism" in Bush's eyes. Shi'ite Muslims have become the dominant religious sect in Iraq since the demise of Saddam Hussein, resulting in the emergence of a "Shi'ite crescent" straddling Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

The US also claims that as a Shi'ite-dominated Muslim nation, Iran is not only directly connected to attacks on US forces in Iraq, but to the rise of Shi'ite fundamentalism throughout the Middle East.

It has to be a mortal enemy of the US.

In order to solve the "Iran problem" for good, according to an observation in the September 18 edition of Russia's Izvestia newspaper, it is of great interest to the US military to occupy Tehran with troops, just as it did in Iraq, and then destroy Iran's nuclear facilities with one decisive strike, which would get rid of the source of the "anti-US" movement in the region.

If somehow that is not an option, another could be that the Pentagon would look to set Iran's nuclear program back a few decades by paralyzing Tehran's strategic facilities with precision strikes from the air and Gulf waters. The Pentagon has already tabled a plan against Iran and is now waiting for Bush's decision.

According to recent press reports, the Department of Defense has finalized plans for attacks against 2,000 targets in Iranian territory. Meanwhile, Washington is also trying hard to persuade other countries to join a "financial campaign" against Iranian banks in a bid to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

It probably worries Iran more than Iraq that US forces could stay in the latter indefinitely. People are waiting to see if the US forces currently deployed in Iraq will take aim at Iran when the efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis by diplomatic means go down the drain and if the true reason for Bush's reluctance to pull US forces out of Iraq is Iran rather than his other previously stated goals.

The author is assistant president of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

(China Daily November 6, 2007)

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