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Highly anticipated report on US’s Iraq policy may fall flat

Carol Giacom

EVEN before its release, a high-profile advisory panel’s report on US policy alternatives in Iraq is generating much excitement but some worry that its main recommendations will fall short of expectations and may be ignored by President George W Bush.

The Iraq Study Group plans to roll out its report on Wednesday but details are leaking out on conclusions reached in secret by the panel’s five Democrats and five Republicans addressing America’s most immediate foreign policy crisis.

The aim has been to produce a bipartisan framework for Bush, his Republican Party and opposition Democrats to change course as Iraq descends into civil war.

‘‘Expectations are out of control’’ for what the panel, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, might achieve, lamented one source close to the deliberations.

Major proposals reported so far include a US military shift from combat toward more of a support role in Iraq over the next year and more aggressive diplomacy including a regional conference that could lead to direct US talks with Iran and Syria. Those are controversial but not radical ideas and some experts question whether the commission’s work may fall flat. That would be unusual for Baker, a master political strategist.

‘‘Insofar as they make a clear suggestion that we must abandon Iraq they will be ignored because the president has said we will not,’’ said Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where experts strongly backed the Iraq war but now criticise the post war effort.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who backs a phased withdrawal of US forces, said the redeployment proposal ‘‘would send a message that the US presence is not open-ended, and would move away from the administration policy that essentially provides Iraq is with a blank check on the presence of our troops’’.

Baker and Hamilton believe Bush erred in isolating Iran and Syria, which the United States accuses of fuelling bloodshed in Iraq, and have endorsed engaging America’s enemies.

Many experts doubt Iran and Syria would help Washington restore stability in Iraq and even those who favour dialogue say it may be too late. The West accuses Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists its aim is energy production. Aaron Miller, a former senior State Department official who helped Baker organise the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid, said he did not object to talks but dialogue with Iran and Syria were ‘‘keys to empty rooms’’.

The possibility of an international conference, especially if it includes US ally Israel and addresses Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq, also has spurred debate. One eagerly awaited section of the report deals with Iraq’s political structure.

‘‘I do not believe the recommendations are going to be dramatic enough to resolve the violence in Iraq because they are not likely to recommend a wholesale restructuring of Iraq’s government to bring about more balance between Sunnis and Shi’ites,’’ said Middle East expert Kenneth Katzman.

A congressional source said the panel was expected to endorse building up support for a strong Iraqi central government and Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki. That would largely continue existing US policy and would fail, he said. Democratic Senator Joseph Biden has argued for backing a switch to a federal systemfor Iraq that would retain a central government while giving Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish groups ‘‘breathing room’’ in their own regions.

Uneasy about what the panel might recommend, Bush directed the Pentagon and State Department to also do policy reviews, visited Jordan for talks with Maliki and repeated his strong opposition to phased withdrawal.

Experts say Bushwas trying to show diplomatic movement and create options for himself in advance of the panel’s report.




'Cowboy' alert over buildings

By Geoffrey Bew - Gulf News

POORLY constructed buildings could end up costing the country millions of dinars to repair, an expert warned yesterday.

Saudi Council of Engineers chairman Dr Abdulrahman Al Rabiah says there has been little improvement in standards in privately owned small to medium-size construction companies in the last 20 years.

He does not believe buildings are on the verge of collapse, but says the problem will harm the economies of all countries in the Middle East if nothing is done about it.

Mr Al Rabiah, who believes the costs could run into millions, was speaking on the sidelines of the eighth International Concrete Conference, which has been organised by the Bahrain Society of Engineers (BSE).

The three-day event, which opened at the Gulf Hotel yesterday, is being held under the patronage of Works and Housing Minister Fahmi Al Jowder and has the theme Concrete in Hot and Aggressive Environments.

Experts from across the region are taking part in the conference, which also features an industry-related exhibition running alongside it.

"My worry is about the quality of construction, the quality of concrete - especially as the effects will only appear after 10 to 20 years," Mr Al Rabiah told the GDN.

"My worry focuses not on A-class contractors, who are qualified and have improved their quality and performance very much, but the small contractors that build villas, apartments and two to three-storey buildings.

"Those lack quality due to their workmanship.

"They also compete on prices and all this reflects in the end product, which is the structure.

"I have not seen a lot of improvement in this sector.

"We keep talking as engineers, professors, researchers, but really we have no contact with the small-scale people in the field to transfer this knowledge to them."

Mr Al Rabiah said there was evidence the same construction practices in use more than 20 years ago were still being followed.

"We do not want to report the same problems happening again, we should learn from them," he said.

"We need to go to the people in the field, they are the executors."

He also said adding storeys to buildings designed for only one floor was another area that needed attention.

"That is part of the problem. It is the lack of technical awareness - especially with small projects," Mr Al Rabiah said.

"They are not aware that there is a problem."

The expert says poor construction methods could have devastating effects on the economies of Bahrain and other countries in the region.

"They (poorly constructed buildings) will be defective and will affect the economy," he said.

"You have to spend money to repair and fix them."

No direct references were made to the Kuwaiti building, which is at the centre of a demolition row, but Mr Al Rabiah later told the GDN there could be several buildings likely to have structural problems.

"Buildings built in the 1950s and early 70s and 80s are really affected by quality," he said.

Mr Al Jowder admitted many existing structures in Bahrain had failed and needed extensive work or reconstruction within 25 years of their creation.

But he also pointed out that Bahrain had a reputation of being one of the best in the region for adhering and administrating strict building control procedures.

"The current building boom in Bahrain and in the region is putting pressure on the concrete industry's capacity and productivity," he said.

"New buildings and architectural forms such as the Bahrain Financial Harbour are stretching the industry's resources. So we must ensure the best and most appropriate standards while increasing productivity for the private and public sector."

He added that the government appeared determined to replace the country's bridges, such as the one in Sitra, with more durable structures that have a lifespan of 120 years.


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