Washington, July 1: US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, hemmed in by a rising crescendo of criticism over the deepening chaos in Iraq, yesterday revealed that “we have asked 70 countries” to send troops to aid the American occupation.
“We have been doing this for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks…. We would like as many as we can get.”
The defence secretary was on the defensive yesterday. Virtually his entire press conference was taken up by Iraq on a day when Iraq’s most respected Shia leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, issued a fatwa effectively nullifying US viceroy Paul Bremer’s efforts to create a council of Iraqis which would provide a fig leaf for countries like India to send troops.
“There is no guarantee that the council would create a constitution conforming with the greater interests of the Iraqi people and expressing the national identity, whose basis is Islam and its noble social values,” read the fatwa.
“The form of rule in Iraq should be done by the Iraqi people through general elections in which every Iraqi chooses a representative in a council that will have the job of writing a constitution, which should be later approved by the people,” the Grand Ayatollah said later in a written statement to AP.
Another powerful Shia leader, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who founded the well-organised Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, told the news agency that “our demand is that a government be formed by the Iraqis and work to end the occupation by peaceful means”.
Rumsfeld was specifically asked if he had a figure for the number of troops that the US wants India and other friendly countries to send to Iraq.
“The more that are there, the fewer of US troops we have to have…. We won’t know precisely what Centcom (US Army Central Command) is going to want…. But whatever it is, we will fill in with as many international forces as we can, and we will then be able to rotate some of our forces out and give them a rest.”
Pressed on the question of international commitments to provide troops, Rumsfeld said there are “four countries (US, UK, Australia, Poland) that already have troops in there. I am going to guess that we have got another six that have agreed to do it.
“And I am going to guess we are currently in negotiations and discussions with another 14. And I would guess there are probably another 15 or 20 beyond that who have indicated some willingness to talk or discuss or something else.”
But it was clear that the process was increasingly frustrating for the US with few countries saying “no” to Washington’s face, yet few governments actually moving any forces towards the Gulf.
“We have been in discussions with something in excess of 20 nations about what they will be able to provide,” Rumsfeld said at one stage. “The effort has been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks.”
The foot dragging by countries on the troops front has been compounded by a bigger problem for the Bush administration.
According to Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, contributors to an international fund to rebuild the war-ravaged country are unwilling to even meet until there is a government of Iraqis in Baghdad.
“We, (the) UN, do not engage in a reconstruction plan in any country if we don’t have the citizens of that country in the driver’s seat — and to have them in the driver’s seat you need to have a representative leadership which interprets the aspirations and the expectations, in this case, of the Iraqi people,” da Silva said last week after discussions with representatives from 52 countries, the UN, the World Bank and other international organisations.