Bush U-turn on Iraq as death toll passes 400
By James Cusick, Westminster Editor
The decision by the US government to fast-track the hand-over of power in Iraq to a new transitional government by June of next year will be the focus of talks at Downing Street this week between George Bush and Tony Blair.
In between a wreath-laying ceremony at Westminster Abbey and a joint press con ference at the Foreign Office on Thursday, the two leaders will discuss the surprise U-turn decision to deliver full sovereignty to the Iraqi people by the end of 2005.
This weekend, with the US death toll in Iraq now passing 400 - with more than 170 US military personnel killed since combat officially ended on May 1 - and with insurgents in Iraq now mounting 30 attacks daily, Washington appears to have finally conceded that the US has no endgame.
Yesterday, emphasising the crisis, a further 12 US military personnel died when a rocket propelled grenade is understood to have hit the tail of a US Black Hawk helicopter gunship causing it to crash midair into another helicopter.
The attack in Mosul left a further nine US personnel wounded as the two aircraft crashed into a residential area of the city. Last night there were no reports of civilian casualties.
Although President Bush tried yesterday to give credit to the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council for taking the decision over the hand-over of power, there is no doubt his administration's advisers believes Iraq must be a problem seen to be solved before Bush embarks next year on his attempt to win a second term in the White House.
Bush said yesterday: "I welcome the announcement by the Iraqi Governing Council of a political timetable as called for by the United Nations in UN Resolution 1511. This statement is an important step towards realising the vision of Iraq as a democratic, pluralistic country at peace with his neighbours."
Under the initial post-war plan for Iraq, set up by the US's chief administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, there was to be no transfer of power untill a constitution was fully drawn up by the US itself. Bremer was called back to Washington last week and effectively told that timetable was to be shelved in favour of the accelerated hand-over to Iraqi.
The new transitional government, taking over in June, will merely be an extension of the current US-appointed governing council. In May an assembly, similar to that which apointed the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, will meet to "select" the transitional government. The whole process will be overseen by the US, but Washington insist the transitional government will draw up the new Iraq constitution that will be the basis for elections in late 2005.
Although Washington believes that Iraq next June will no longer be in a state of occupation, there is no guarantee that US and UK troops will begin a formal pull-out . Washington says it expects the new "government" to request it to remain.
Britain's special envoy to Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, however, indicated yesterday that the US timetable could slip into 2006.
If the deal is to gain international approval, especially from the French who have continually demanded a speeded-up process of handing sovereignty back to Iraq, then further guarantees will have to come out of Washington.
Both Blair and Bush need something positive to come out of the Downing Street talks this Thursday after criticism of the state visit continued to mount this weekend.
Lord Hattersley on GMTV today will say that the state visit is merely "propoganda" for Bush's presidential election campaign. "The object of this visit is for president Bush to proclaim himself as a world statesman, when we know that his Achilles heel, during his first campaign, is that he couldn't remember the names of world leaders."
Hattersley said that people regarded the president as a hick "and now he's coming to have dinner with the Queen to prove he's not a hick."
A YouGov poll for today's Sunday Times found that one in three people believe Bush is "a stupid man."