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NOT ME! A timeline of finger-pointing in Iraq

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The New York Times today features a long report in which U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker constructs a timeline with an important lesson for the world: the failure of the battle for Basra was not our fault. In fact, it was entirely the fault of the feckless Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

The key to this claim is in the headline—“U.S. Cites Gaps in Planning of Iraqi Assault on Basra”—and in the first sentence, which informs us that Crocker “first learned of the Iraqi plan on Friday, March 21,” which was just a few days before the assault actually began.

In the initial briefing, Crocker learned only that Maliki “would be heading to Basra with Iraqi troops to bring order to the city.” But more surprises were to come. When the battle began, “it was not what the United States expected. Instead of methodically building up their combat power and gradually stepping up operations against renegade militias, Mr. Maliki’s forces lunged into the city, attacking before all of the Iraqi reinforcements had even arrived.”

And so we are given to understand that the United States was taken by surprise, that Maliki was a loose cannon, really just a fool. If only he had given us more notice, perhaps superior U.S. military logic might have prevailed. Clearly the people of Iraq will need our guidance for just a little while longer….

The only thing that is surprising about this narrative, alas, is that the New York Times seems to believe it.

Indeed, I myself knew that a major battle for Basra was in the works two weeks before it began.

I knew this not because I had access to top secret briefing materials but because on March 13 the Times—same paper, different reporters—let it be known that “Iraqi Troops May Move to Reclaim Basra’s Port.” And in that report, the deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Salih, said the forthcoming action would require a “very strong military presence in Basra to eradicate the militia” and that “Western troops would be involved.”

In that same report, Iraqi General Mohan Fahad al-Fraji said, “We have a plan that is already set by [the Iraqi Ministry of Defense] and the prime minister’s office, and we’re going to implement it in a scientific way.”

As it happens, Dick Cheney arrived in Baghdad just a few days after this report was published. You might think he’d have heard at least a whisper about it.

And even if he hadn’t, he could have read a follow-up report in the Independent, which carried the admirably straightforward headline, “The final battle for Basra is near, says Iraqi general.” This report was available to the world, including Ambassador Crocker, on March 20, which is one day before Crocker says he first learned of the plan.

The finger-pointing would be comical in its ineptitude if it didn’t also remind us that the Bush Administration has failed in equally absurd ways at far more important tasks.

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