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Iraq Troop Withdrawals Driven By Politics

Washington (UPI) Nov 22, 2005
The U.S. military will recommend the number of troops that can be prudently withdrawn from Iraq - if any - but the final decision for the American military presence there will be up to policy officials in Washington. And they will consider political factors as well when they craft a final plan, a top U.S. general in Iraq said Tuesday.

"The ultimate decision, of course, will be made as a policy level decision in Washington and other capitals," said Lt. Gen. John Vines, the commander of the 155,000 U.S. troops and a contingent of about 10,000 foreign troops in Iraq.

"Recommendations will be made here based on conditions on the ground. Those conditions are the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the capability of the government to support those forces in the field, the state of the insurgency, and a whole range of conditions," he said.

Putting the Iraq troop question through the Washington policy process -- particularly now that debate has reached such a level of bitterness that members of Congress nearly came to blows on the House floor last week -- is cause for real concern among military officers serving in Iraq and others in the Pentagon.

"Tell them not to pull us out until the job is done," said an Army battalion operations officer in Iraq. "I'd rather stay here another year than have to come back three years from now and start all over."

Troops at the fighting level -- brigades, battalions and companies -- are eager to return to the United States, but many in interviews across the country told United Press International that they did not want to do so at the expense of allowing Iraq to slip into a civil war, or to fall into the hands of thugs, or to be weakened to the point that the central government does not have positive control over every inch of the country.

Any of these possibilities pose real danger of a forced return engagement of American forces, and next time it will be against an even more deeply entrenched enemy.

Across Iraq, despite spectacular car bombs and the almost daily deaths of U.S. troops by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or small arms fire, U.S. military commanders see real progress being made.

Towns that were once firmly in the grip of insurgents -- Iraqi or otherwise -- are being mollified through combined operations with Iraqi forces. Americans provide muscle, firepower and experience in urban combat. Iraqi forces provide intelligence, language capability, insight into the local situation, and are increasingly capable of decisive military operations, U.S. military sources said.

More importantly, and U.S. military commanders say this is a key point, the new Iraqi forces provide numbers -- the number of troops needed not just to expel insurgents from a town but to hold that town to keep them from coming back.

Those kinds of successful clear-and-hold operations have only been possible in Iraq for the last six or nine months, because then there were not enough troops -- American or Iraqi -- to do the work. It requires "boots on the ground." With some 220,000 Iraqi soldiers and police in various stages of training and operations joining the U.S. forces in the fight, American military officials said they were beginning see real results.

But the questions surrounding the Iraq war are no longer just about tactics and troop levels. The war debate is deeply political.

The White House sees President George. W. Bush's poll numbers falling, in large part because of dissatisfaction over the war, although the impact of Hurricane Katrina, the deficit, and questions about pre-war intelligence certainly come into it. Pulling out a substantial number of troops would be one possible way to stop his decline in popularity. It would show "progress" -- that the war was being won, and he was so confident of that, a large number of troops can come home.

Anti-war factions on Capitol Hill, mostly in the Democratic Party, would like to see troops come home as it could prove their muscle and deliver them an important victory after three years of being politically bludgeoned into going along with the White House or risk looking unpatriotic.

Last week, House Republicans engineered the introduction and overwhelming defeat of a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, a political stunt designed to blunt the criticism of Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.) who last week made an emotional statement reversing his support for the war and calling for the withdrawal of troops.

The military itself has partisans for pulling out troops. The Army and, to a lesser extent, the Marine Corps are straining under the weight of back-to-back deployments. Recruiting for the Army is down at a time when it is trying to increase its pay roll to conduct both the war and its transformation. Cutting the number of troops overseas would ease personnel pressure.

Also Monday, a group of about 100 Iraqi leaders meeting in Cairo, Egypt, signed a memorandum demanding the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops from their country. The document did not specify a deadline for the withdrawal.

So powerful forces lining up for different reasons behind the same goal -- cutting troops overseas -- might weight the policy toward pull-out, no matter what Vines and Gen. George Casey, his boss, recommend.

U.S. military officers across Iraq raise the possibility of "another Mosul" if troops are cut precipitously.

Immediately after the war, the 101st Airborne Division assumed responsibility for northern Iraq, including Mosul. Under the leadership of then Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, what could have been a scene of great fighting -- between Sunnis and Shiites; Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs; and foreign fighters and Americans -- was one of the post-war successes. The success did not last long: the 101st was replaced with a Stryker brigade less than half its size, and within months, northern Iraq was a violent home for insurgents of all stripes. In November 2004, dozens of police stations and Iraqi army officers were simultaneously attacked and burned to the ground.

The transformation was a result of several factors, not least of which was the maturation of the insurgency, which was still getting on its feet in early 2004. But many military officials see it as a predictable result of pulling out too many troops, too soon.

The difference now, Vines said Tuesday in a briefing with Pentagon reporters, is that there are enough Iraqi forces to take up the slack if and when U.S. forces are withdrawn, and the American troops won't be withdrawn unless Iraqi forces can handle it.

"What is different is the capability of the Iraqi armed forces. Their capability is growing on a monthly basis. And there's no question that we need security forces, but what -- in my mind -- what we need are Iraqi security forces, and they're being fielded and they're increasingly capable," Vines said.

When the time comes in any given area to hand over power to Iraqi security forces is a matter not of science but of judgment. The quality of Iraqi troops is uneven, and they may or may not be able to hold territory outside of Baghdad. U.S. forces are partnering with and training them in an effort to make sure they can do the job on their own. As they step up, the plan is for U.S. forces to pull back and be available as a quick reaction force and to provide logistical support until they are fully capable of meeting the threat.

"Yes, there is a legitimate concern about having enough forces," Vines said. "The question is not whether the forces are needed, the question is whose forces and what type forces. And I'm absolutely convinced that Iraqi security forces are the right forces because they are accepted by the Iraqi people as legitimately protecting their security interests. And so the Iraqi army, police and the various organs of their security forces are where we're moving increasingly."

The desire to hand the mission off to Iraqi forces is not just a tactical one. U.S. military officials reason decreasing the U.S. occupation presence in Iraq would deflate opposition in the Middle East to cracking down on insurgent traffic and financial support in their own country. When Islamic extremists are seen to be killing Iraqis there can be fewer political excuses made for not intervening to stop them.

Vines' calculations also bank on the notion that if U.S. forces are less visible in Iraq, the insurgency -- 90 percent of which is Iraqi Sunni -- will no longer see an enemy to fight.

And if the United States is not perceived as an unwelcome occupier by law-abiding Sunnis -- many of whom sympathize with anti-American insurgents -- they will be more inclined to turn in the extremists in their midst. Without that kind of cooperation the insurgency and foreign fighters that capitalize on their numbers can not be defeated, by Americans or Iraqis, according to military officials.

The public will not know precisely what Vines and Casey recommend to the Pentagon, unless it is leaked.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said domestic politics would not impact the Iraq troop decision. "They won't," he told reporters at a morning briefing.

The decision to withdraw troops will be a judgment of the appropriate balance between maintaining sufficient forces for security while minimizing the American "footprint" to keep from inflaming Sunnis, DiRita said.

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US Senator Offers Plan For Gradual Withdrawal Of Troops From Iraq
Washington (AFP) Nov 22, 2005
A leading Democratic senator has unveiled a plan to gradually withdraw US troops from Iraq, just days after another respected member of Congress caused a stir by calling for an immediate pullout of US forces.

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