President George W. Bush’s isolation over Iraq deepened on Sunday following the publication of a leaked memo from sacked defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld calling for a “major adjustment” in Iraq policy.
John Warner, the outgoing Republican chairman of the Senate armed services committee, told NBC’s Meet the Press programme that the president should respect the will of the people and seek agreement with the Democrat leaders of Congress on a new Iraq policy.
Top Democrats attacked the president for appearing to dig in his heels ahead of the publication on Wednesday of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq. Carl Levin, incoming chairman of the Senate armed services committee, said “his stubbornness has continued . . . it seems to me to be more of the same”.
Meanwhile Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, told the BBC that he agreed with those who say the “average Iraqi’s life” is worse now than it was under Saddam Hussein.
The pressure on Mr Bush, who last week insisted there would be no “graceful exit” from Iraq, comes ahead of what may prove a defining week in US Iraq policy.
Stephen Hadley, White House national security adviser, on Sunday played down the significance of the Rumsfeld memo, which was leaked to The New York Times. It included an option to “begin modest withdrawals of US and coalition forces [start taking our hands off the bicycle seat]” – a policy shift favoured by the Democrats.
Mr Hadley described the memo – released two days before Mr Rumsfeld was fired – as a “laundry list” rather than “a game plan”. The White House desperately wants to keep room for manoeuvre and not be bound by the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report – which, leaks suggest, will advocate a draw-down of US combat troops and talks with Iran and Syria.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, told CNN it would take Mr Bush “a few weeks” to make up his mind on any changes to Iraq policy.
Mr Hadley said the report was an important input to what he characterised as a broader review of Iraq policy.
While Mr Rumsfeld had floated the idea of redefining US goals and going “minimalist”, Mr Hadley insisted Mr Bush’s goal re-mained the same: “a democratic Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and be an ally in the war on terror”. He cast the present challenge as one of building Iraqis’ ability to take on responsibility for their own security.
A Pentagon official told the FT that when the memo was released, Mr Rumsfeld had known he was to be sacked.