Rumsfeld memo admits Iraq errors

As scores more die in Baghdad, leaked document reveals former US defense secretary called for policy U-turn on eve of his departure

Outgoing Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, the prime architect of the Iraq war, urged a major overhaul of US strategy just before he resigned on 8 November it emerged last night, as scores of Iraqis died in new bombings in Baghdad and in violent incidents across the country.

The volte-face of Mr Rumsfeld ­ in public so dismissive of all criticism ­ came in a trenchant memo published in Sunday's edition of The New York Times.

"Clearly what US forces are doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough," he wrote in the memo, dated 6 November, two days before President Bush announced Mr Rumsfeld's resignation. "In my view it is time for a major adjustment."

The memo set out various proposals, including a massive reduction in US bases, the payment of Iraqi groups for their co-operation and the adoption of a "minimalist" presentation of Washington's mission and goals in Iraq.

The US Defense Secretary also urged cuts in overall coalition troop strength, coupled with beefed-up training of Iraqi security forces ­ steps that are to be urged in the keenly awaited bipartisan report on future US strategy, to be published on Wednesday.

Though the memo was written almost four weeks ago, it captures the sense of confusion and despair at Iraq's seemingly unstoppable descent into chaos, on yet another day of carnage and sectarian violence across the country.

In the capital, three parked car bombs exploded yesterday in a predominately Shia district of central Baghdad, killing at least 51 people and injuring 90 others. The blasts went off almost simultaneously at about 4.30pm local time in a busy shopping district, and sent huge clouds of black smoke billowing across the city.

The explosions, similar in style to the 23 November bombs that killed more than 200, will only deepen the enmity between the Sunni and Shia populations. They will also heighten the sense of urgency in the US ahead of new policy recommendations and diplomatic moves seeking to stabilise the country.

They capped a week in which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government had seemed close to collapse, torn between its US ally and pressure from the virulently anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc is vital to Mr Maliki's survival.

In violence-torn Baquba, north-east of Baghdad, Iraqi and US forces raided insurgent strongholds, arresting more than 30 suspected fighters. In the capital, police found the bodies of 12 people who had been handcuffed and shot. Elsewhere, a dozen Iraqi civilians were reported dead in separate incidents, as well as one American soldier, bringing the total of US dead to almost 2,890.

Washington, meanwhile, awaits with bated breath the report drawn up by the commission headed by James Baker, the former Republican secretary of state, which is widely seen as the best hope of finding a politically acceptable and at least semi-dignified exit from a conflict that almost everyone except the White House acknowledges is a civil war.

Such is the public interest that, confident of an instant bestseller, Random House is rushing the 100-page The Way Forward ­ A New Approach from the Iraq Study Group into print on Wednesday, moments after it is presented to President Bush.

The expectations are almost certainly exaggerated. The ISG's conclusions have already been amply leaked. They are: a gradual pullback of US forces and intensified training of Iraqi forces, plus a more vigorous diplomatic effort, including moves to bring Iran and Syria directly into the process and, possibly, a regional conference.

The report avoids a fixed timetable for withdrawal, demanded by many Democrats. But it is said to hint that US troops should start to leave next year, with most gone by early 2008. It does not specify whether they should stay in the region or return to the US.

Even more important, its most important reader ­ Mr Bush himself ­ has made clear that he will not be rushed into precipitate action. At his press conference on Thursday in Amman with Mr Maliki, the President showed little sign of changing direction and again appeared to rule out direct talks with Iran.

Mr Bush is determined to keep his grip on the diplomatic process, whatever ideas Mr Baker and his colleagues come up with. Tony Blair is due in Washington soon, while Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of the most powerful Shia leaders in Iraq, has been invited to the White House tomorrow. Next month, a senior Sunni, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, will visit.

The activity underlines how the White House is involving itself more closely in Iraq's intricate internal politics in its search for a solution to the crisis.

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