Bush kept surveillance on ally Maliki in Iraq war strategy

Sat, Sep 6, 2008, 01:00

IRAQ:A new book by Bob Woodward exposes conflict and indecision over the Iraqi surge in the White House, writes Steve Luxenbergin Washington

THE BUSH administration has conducted an extensive spying operation on prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, his staff and others in the Iraqi government, according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward.

"We know everything he says," according to one of multiple sources Woodward cites about the practice in The War Within: A Secret White House History, 2006-2008, due for release on Monday.

The book also says that the US troop "surge" of 2007, in which President Bush sent almost 30,000 additional US troops to Iraq, was not the primary factor behind the steep drop in violence there during the past 16 months.

Rather, Woodward reports, "groundbreaking" new covert techniques enabled US military and intelligence officials to locate, target and kill insurgent leaders and key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Woodward does not disclose much detail about these programmes, saying in the book that White House and other officials cited national security concerns in asking him to withhold specifics.

Overall, Woodward writes, four factors combined to reduce the violence: the covert operations; the influx of troops; the decision by militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to rein in his powerful Mahdi army; and the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied with US forces.

The book is Woodward's fourth to examine the inner debates of the Bush administration and its handling of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It concentrates on Bush's leadership and governing style, based on more than 150 interviews with the president's national security team, senior deputies and other key intelligence, diplomatic and military players. Woodward also conducted two on-the-record interviews with Bush in May.

The book portrays an administration riven by dissension, either unwilling or slow to confront the deterioration of its strategy in Iraq during the summer and early autumn of 2006. Publicly, Bush maintained that US forces were "winning"; privately, he came to believe that the military's long-term strategy of training Iraq security forces and handing over responsibility to the new Iraqi government was failing.

Eventually, Woodward writes, the president lost confidence in the two military commanders overseeing the war at the time: Gen George Casey jnr, then commander of coalition forces in Iraq, and Gen John Abizaid, then head of US central command.

In October 2006, the book says, Bush asked Stephen Hadley, his national security adviser, to lead a closely guarded review of the Iraq war. That first assessment did not include military participants and proceeded secretly because of White House fears that news coverage of a review might damage Republican chances in the midterm congressional elections.

"We've got to do it under the radar screen because the electoral season is so hot," Hadley is quoted as telling secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who is described as challenging the president on the wisdom of sending additional troops to Iraq. "You're not getting a clear picture of what's going on on the ground," she told the president, the book says.

The credibility of information about the war's progress became a source of tension within the administration, according to the book. Rice complained about the defence department's "overconfident" briefings during the tenure of secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rather than receiving options on the war, Bush would get "a fable, a story . . . that skirted the real problems," Rice is quoted as saying.

According to Woodward, the president maintained an odd detachment from the reviews of war policy during this period, turning much of the process over to Hadley. "Let's cut to the chase," Bush told Woodward, "Hadley drove a lot of this."

Nor, Woodward reports, did Bush express much urgency for change during the months when sectarian killings and violent attacks against US forces in Iraq began rising, reaching more than 1,400 incidents a week by October 2006 - an average of more than eight an hour.

"This is nothing that you hurry," he told Woodward in one of the interviews, when asked whether he had given his advisers a firm deadline for recommending a revised war strategy.

In response to a question about how the White House settled on a troop surge of five brigades after the military leadership in Washington had reluctantly said it could provide two, Bush said: "Okay, I don't know this. I'm not in these meetings, you'll be happy to hear, because I got other things to do."

The book presents an evolving portrait of the president's decision-making. On the one hand, the book portrays Bush as tentative and slow to react to the escalating violence in Iraq; on the other, once he decides that a surge is required, he is shown acting with focus and determination to move ahead with his plan in the face of strong resistance from his top military advisers.

Woodward also depicts the development of a close working relationship between Bush and Maliki, with the president leaning on the Iraqi leader to govern evenhandedly and to take decisive action against sectarianism.

"I've worked hard to get in a position where we can relate human being to human being, and where I try to understand his frustrations and his concerns, but also in a place where I am capable of getting him to listen to me," Bush told Woodward.

Given Bush's efforts to earn Maliki's trust, the surveillance of the Iraqi prime minister caused some consternation among several senior US officials, who questioned whether it was worth the risk, Woodward reports.

In a critical epilogue assessing the president's performance as commander-in-chief, Woodward concludes that Bush "rarely was the voice of realism on the Iraq war" and "too often failed to lead".

During the interviews with Woodward, the president spoke of the war as part of a recentring of American power in the Middle East. "And it should be," Bush said. "And the reason it should be: It is the place from which a deadly attack emanated. And it is the place where further deadly attacks could emanate."

The president also conceded: "This war has created a lot of really harsh emotion, out of which comes a lot of harsh rhetoric. One of my failures has been to change the tone in Washington." - (LA Times-Washington Post service)