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Rice reins in neo-conservatives on Iraq

g and compass

American Chronicle

Rice reins in neo-conservatives on Iraq

June 16, 2005

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst

WASHINGTON, June 15 (UPI) -- As the wave of suicide terror bombings continues unabated with no improvement in sight, Iraq has already imposed a significant sea change on the Bush administration.

Senior European diplomats and high level Saudi sources have both told United Press International they have detected a significant change in tone and policy - welcomed by both Brussels and Riyadh - from the Bush administration on Middle East issues, especially Iran, in recent weeks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has frozen the neo-conservatives out of the power positions in the State Department. And the administration is standing firm against pressure from congress to turn up the heat on Iran, behind which many observers see the hand of the Israeli lobby.

Nearly 140,000 U.S. troops continue to be bogged down in Iraq and there appears no likelihood that the numbers will be significantly lowered for at least two years. They may have to stay at that level far longer, or even have their numbers stepped up.

The neo-conservative ideologues who dominated planning for the Iraq war at the Pentagon with the whole-hearted, enthusiastic support of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are much quieter in public now and their Pentagon presence is somewhat curtailed.

Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, having failed as yet to bring the blessings of peace and democracy to Iraq, has been put in charge of the World Bank by President George W, Bush and has indicated his confidence remains undiminished in his ability to reduce the enormous problems of sub-Saharan Africa.

Wolfowitz's right hand man, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, the most controversial individual ever to hold that position, has indicated he will step down during the summer, probably in July, though has not done so yet.

The neo-cons in fact retain immense clout in the administration. Harold Rhode remains Rumsfeld's advisor on Islamic affairs and he, Army sources have told UPI, was passionately enthusiastic about both toppling Saddam and then using Iraq as a "springboard" to topple the Islamic Republic in neighboring Iran. David Wurmser, his close buddy, continues to retain the full confidence of Vice President Cheney.

But at Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Rice, the president's right hand on all foreign policy issues, has resolutely blocked pressure from Rumsfeld and Cheney to grant key appointments, especially in the Bureau of Near East Affairs and Middle East diplomatic posts, to neo-conservatives.

She chose David Welch, a solid, widely respected professional Foreign Service Officer with immense experience in the Arab world as assistant secretary for Near East affairs. And State insiders say she and Welch are considering Richard Jones, another seasoned Middle East veteran and professional diplomat, who is Rice's current special advisor and coordinator on Iraq, for the crucial slot of ambassador to Israel.

Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is also bracing itself to face a round of intensified U.S. pressure to carry out another round of settlement withdrawals from the West Bank after the Gaza withdrawal, currently scheduled for August, is completed.

Also, in a move still widely misread by Washington pundits, Rice has sidelined former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, the most important "Trojan Horse" that the neo-cons at the Pentagon and on the National Security Council had to undermine former Secretary of State Colin Powell from within, by sending him into exile as ambassador to the United Nations.

Far from embarrassing Rice, the continuing uproar and struggle by Senate Democrats to block Bolton's confirmation has greatly strengthened her hand. Even if Bolton is still confirmed, he will be damaged goods, with Republican senators like George Voinovich of Ohio as well as Democratic ones watching him like a hawk for the first bungle or embarrassment.

The degree to which Rice, backed by the president and the White House, has shifted direction on the Middle East is most of all seen on Iran. Last week, "The Hill" newspaper on Capitol Hill published an important article noting that strong pro-Israel activists in both Houses of Congress led by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the Senate and Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida for the Democrats were pushing for far tougher Congressional legislation against Iran.

This move was consistent with the theme of the annual policy conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, last month. Around one third of the Senate and half the House of Representatives attended the conference's dinner in what has long been its annual ritual flexing of political muscle in Washington. AIPAC chose as its key speakers, former assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, Wolfowitz's close friend and ally, and Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, who have both campaigned tirelessly for aggressive U.S. action against Iran.

AIPAC's direct political clout on Capitol Hill remains as strong as ever. But what was striking, was that it needed its supporters in both Houses of Congress to push for Iran legislation and could no longer count on the clout of sympathetic neo-cons in the administration to push the policies through in the executive branch.

Also, as The Hill reported, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, head of the House International Relations Committee, and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were both determined to keep any new proposed legislation to punish Iran bottled up in their committees. The go ahead for both of them to do that has been coming from the White House and from Secretary Rice.

The strategic imperative leading the president and his secretary of state to move with caution over Iran flows directly from the continuing violence in neighboring Iraq. With nearly 140,000 U.S. troops still bogged down there and no improvement remotely in sight, the last thing the administration needs is to risk a conflict with neighboring Iran, especially that could dangerously alienate the 60 percent of Iraqis who, like the Iranians, are Shiite Muslim in their religious faith. Iraq in that case could rapidly become ungovernable even if half a million U.S. troops were poured into it.

None of these developments entirely removes the danger of a possible clash between Washington and Tehran. But the current tone in U.S. policy has certainly been striking a more cautious note, and is reducing tensions, at least for the moment.

Copyright 2005 by United Press International.

All rights reserved.

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