U.S. and Iraqi politicians craft language fit for negotiation

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 28, 2006 

WASHINGTON - For the past week, debate over U.S. Iraq policy focused on whether the U.S. should set goals for the Iraqi government, such as disarming militias, and if they are not met, pull out. The discussion led to an acrimonious dispute between the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and that country's prime minister and has been the subject of several clarifications from U.S. officials, including President Bush.

Here are some questions and answers about the debate.

QUESTION: Officials have used several terms to describe the idea of setting goals. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad referred to a "timetable" on Tuesday. President Bush in a press conference Wednesday talked about "benchmarks." A statement from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Friday talked about "timelines."

Are they all the same thing?

ANSWERS: Not really. According to the dictionary, a "timetable" is a "schedule of the time certain things are supposed to happen," especially the arrival of trains and planes. It suggests precision. "Benchmark," the dictionary says, is a "standard or point of reference in measuring or judging quality." It draws its origin from the permanent locations surveyors use to map heights and distances. It is not a measure of time. A "timeline" is a "chronological summary or listing of historical or planned events." Newspapers frequently use timelines as a quick way to show the sequence in which events took place.

Q. Where did the idea of a timetable come from?

A. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., first suggested it in an opinion piece for The New York Times in May, calling for the United States to set a deadline for withdrawal. That idea was immediately rejected by the Bush administration, but several politicians have revised it as a way to get Iraq's government to move more quickly. Most recently, sources told McClatchy Newspapers and the New York Times that the Bush administration was working on a timetable for Iraqi officials to take over certain security functions next year, after which, presumably, U.S. troops would come home.

Q. Why is the idea of setting a timetable so controversial?

A. The Bush administration argues that any date-certain timetable simply gives Iraq's insurgents a target date, after which they can press hard to take over the country. But with polls showing that the war in Iraq is now unpopular with a majority of Americans, Democrats and some Republicans are looking for something other than an open-ended commitment to remain in Iraq. The idea of setting a timetable provides at least some suggestion that troops will come home.

Q. Has the United States ever set a specific time for pulling troops out of Iraq?

A. No. Officials have spoken generally about when U.S. involvement might end, beginning with the run-up to the war in 2003, when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested the war would last weeks. News reports in June said Army Gen. William Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, had prepared a plan to begin withdrawing troops at the end of this year. On Tuesday, Casey said he believed Iraqi troops could take over security responsibilities in 12-to-18 months.

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