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From Iraq to Israel, U.S. Shifts Tactics to Keep Up With Events

August 22, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From Baghdad to Jerusalem, U.S. policy in the Middle East is under siege -- forcing the Bush administration to shift course to save its most pressing foreign policy initiatives.

After a calamitous week in Iraq triggered by Tuesday's bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, the United States is seeking substantial military assistance from the same countries that earlier this year balked at helping the U.S.-led coalition wage war.

It's a move that Washington has long resisted. But in a nuanced diplomatic maneuver, the administration is now prepared to allow other nations to take on specific security operations -- in some cases with only informal contact with American officials, even though the United States technically retains military command of all foreign forces in Iraq.

"We want unity of command. It would be a disaster to have armed forces roaming around Iraq reporting to no common place," said a senior administration official. "But it's true that different forces have different police and military specialties."

The current assignment of troops from Albania, a predominantly Muslim country, to protect Shiite Muslim holy places in southern Iraq is an example of how these new deployments might work, the State Department said.

"Those decisions can be important and will be made in full consultation with the countries involved -- who would go where and who would do what," said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity.

The policy is designed to prevent another contentious battle at the U.N. Security Council and go around demands from key members, including France, Russia and Germany, that the United States cede some control of the occupation.

To deal with the increasingly messy aftermath of Tuesday's bus bombing in Jerusalem, Washington also has quietly put the Palestinian Authority leadership on notice that decisive action against Islamic extremists is expected within the next week to 10 days -- and not in phases over several months -- or the promises made in the U.S.-brokered "road map" to peace may be in jeopardy.

Asked if violence could end the peace process, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said at a news conference with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "The end of the road map is a cliff that both sides will fall off of, and so we have to understand the consequences of the end of the road map."

Washington had given Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, who has been in office since the end of April, some leeway in dealing with the extremists during a planned three-month cease-fire. His strategy was to get at least a temporary truce, begin retaking control of Palestinian towns from Israel and use foreign aid to provide social services currently offered by Hamas so that he could then afford to "choke them off," according to the senior State Department official.

The administration appears to have abandoned the idea that the militants -- notably Hamas, which provides social services for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians -- might be allowed to reconfigure themselves and survive as social or political movements if they renounced violence.

Abbas now needs to "step up to the plate," said the State Department official. "We no longer have the luxury of a three- or four-month strategy to choke them off."

The tactical shifts in the administration's two most serious foreign challenges reflect the need to quickly change course after this week's suicide bombings suddenly imperiled U.S. strategy. But there is no guarantee that they will succeed.

The administration claims it can win passage of a United Nations resolution that basically "encourages and authorizes" further involvement of the international community, "expresses determination" to stabilize Iraq and calls on neighboring states to crack down on foreign fighters crossing the Iraqi border.

"Given the environment and the willingness to step up to the plate, this is an opportunity to get this done. We wouldn't have started unless we have a good chance of success," said the State Department official.

But the French in particular are playing hardball on a new U.N. resolution designed to get countries such as India and Pakistan to commit large numbers of troops. "Any agreement has to be much more than mere cosmetics," said a French diplomat.

The United States has now largely given up on the prospect that France may send troops. U.S. strategy now is simply to prevent a French veto.

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the administration is also optimistic that the two sides will get back to negotiations once the current cycle of violence loses steam -- if for no other reason than the alternative is too bleak for either to accept.

"The alternative is what? Just more death and destruction? Let the terrorists win? Let those who have no interest in a Palestinian state win? Let those who have no interest but killing innocent people win?

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