President George W. Bush will announce his new war plans for Iraq in a prime-time address to the nation on Wednesday night that is expected to focus on a combined military-economic push for victory.
The final link in the reshuffled team to carry out the new strategy was revealed by the White House on Monday. Ryan Crocker, a veteran diplomat and Arabist, is to become the next US ambassador in Baghdad, replacing Zalmay Khalilzad who is nominated to fill the vacant post of envoy to the United Nations. Mr Crocker will oversee the largest US embassy, working with Lt Gen David Petraeus, the counter-insurgency expert named last week to take over from Gen George Casey as commander of multinational forces in Iraq.
Democrats in Congress have warned Mr Bush that he should not expect an easy ride in gaining approval for the emergency supplemental budget of at least $100bn (€77bn, £51bn) he is likely to request for Iraq next month.
Many Republicans are sceptical, too, saying this is the “last chance” for the Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, whose botched handling of the execution of Saddam Hussein has lowered his standing even further in Washington.
But the appointments of Mr Crocker and Lt Gen Petraeus, both respected and already veterans of the Iraq war, will help the administration get through three weeks of tough committee hearings in the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat on the foreign relations committee, gave a taste of what lies in store, commenting in reference to Gen Casey’s early removal: “It looks like the president went shopping for a general who agreed with him.”
Lt Gen Petraeus, who led the drafting of the military’s new counter-insurgency manual, is said to have disagreed with the “light footprint” strategy of Gen Casey. He is expected to have an infusion of up to 20,000 more troops for a long-term attempt at “clear and hold” in Baghdad.
The neo-conservative camp that appears to have achieved success in lobbying Mr Bush to ramp up the US’s military and economic commitment wants the focus on clearing “high-violence Sunni and mixed Sunni-Shia neighbourhoods”.
Analysts say this approach, if adopted, would place Mr Crocker in a difficult position of carrying out the other expected half of the Bush plan, a broad-based push for reconciliation with the Sunni – the former ruling minority – backed by more money.
Mr Khalilzad, the departing ambassador, pursued this approach but ran into opposition from the Shia-dominated coalition. His background as a Sunni Muslim (he is Afghan by birth) also raised suspicions that some former officials say made his position untenable.
Mr Crocker is not only an experienced Arabist who served in hot-spots, including Beirut. He is one of the few remaining US diplomats with experience in Iran before relations were severed following the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Mr Crocker, currently ambassador to Pakistan, was involved in successful talks with Iran in late 2001 after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan that led to the formation of the Karzai government.
His two predecessors in Baghdad – Mr Khalilzad and John Negroponte – both received the green light to make contact with their Iranian counterparts. It is not known if Mr Crocker will receive similar dispensation.
Tony Snow, White House spokesman, rejected suggestions that the new strategy represented the “last chance” for success. But he also dodged questions on whether Mr Bush would talk about achieving “victory”. Pressed whether the speech would tackle the consequences of failure, Mr Snow said