Bush speculates that improved conditions next year will lead to a pullback

The White House announced on 30 November that it expects conditions in Iraq to improve sufficiently in 2006 to enable a significant reduction in US troop numbers in the country. Although no figures were mentioned, the move is significant and is being seen by many as a sign of a shift in thinking in the Bush administration, which is coming under growing pressure at home and abroad to announce a clear plan for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

In Washington, Democrat politicians – led by Senator Carl Levin and Congressman John Murtha – have increased their criticism of Bush’s policy in Iraq, accusing the president of misleading the country by using false intelligence before the war and calling for an immediate troop withdrawal. Vice-president Dick Cheney dismissed the Democrat criticisms as ‘dishonest’.

Of greater concern for the administration is mounting disquiet among fellow Republicans, who are also calling for clarification of the White House’s intentions. Domestic pressure for Bush to declare a timetable for withdrawal is being matched internationally. In late November, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that Rome expected to withdraw its 3,000 troops from Iraq by the end of 2006.

With his domestic approval ratings falling, the challenge facing the US president is to manage a US withdrawal from Iraq while being seen to maintain his earlier commitment to ‘stay the course’.

Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on 30 November praised the progress of Iraqi security forces, countering accusations that the domestic forces would be unable to maintain stability in Iraq. ‘They’re doing a darned good job and they’re doing an increasingly better job every day, every week, every month,’ Rumsfeld said.

However, the prospects for stability in Iraq looked increasingly bleak in the last week of November, as a series of attacks left more than 40 people killed and 30 wounded. November also saw a spate of kidnappings, with nine foreigners and one Iraqi abducted in three separate incidents in the last week of the month.

Tensions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities were also fanned by claims from former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi, who claimed that human rights abuses under the current government equalled those of Saddam Hussein. Allawi’s claims followed the discovery on 13 November of 170 detainees, mainly Sunni, allegedly tortured and malnourished. Allawi’s claims were rubbished by President Talabani, who said the two situations were incomparable. The murder on 23 November of Sunni tribal leader Kathim Sirheed Ali also added to the growing troubles.