Top U.S. commander in Middle East tells Armed Services Committee that leaving Iraq early would increase violence
WASHINGTON – Again and again, senators pressed the U.S. military chief for the Middle East: Why not begin withdrawing troops from Iraq? Wouldn’t that force the Iraqi government to do more to stop the violence?They were questions Gen. John Abizaid had heard before, but on Wednesday they came primarily from Senate Democrats emboldened by an electoral triumph last week that they hope will help force a change in Iraq policy.His answers suggested that the shifting domestic political landscape hadn’t changed the military’s view of Iraq, where sectarian violence is growing worse almost by the day.”It seems to me that the prudent course ahead is to keep the troop levels about where they are,” or possibly increase them slightly so that bigger U.S. advisory teams can be placed inside Iraqi army and police units, he said.Abizaid said that announcing a timetable for starting a U.S. pullout would limit the flexibility he needs to manage the military transition in Iraq. It also would risk undermining confidence in the Iraqi government, a factor he called crucial in persuading Iraqis that they don’t need armed militias in order to be secure.The tone was generally respectful at the hearing of the Armed Services Committee, the first on Iraq policy since last week’s elections gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress starting in January. But the Democratic senators, and some of the Republicans, indicated clearly that they expect changes.
“Hope is not a strategy,” said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., a prospective 2008 presidential candidate. Citing the Bush administration’s repeated claims of progress in Iraq, Clinton said she saw no evidence that the Iraqi government was ready to make hard decisions, including taking firm action to disarm or neutralize sectarian militias.”The brutal fact is, it is not happening,” she said.Even so, Abizaid said it was too soon to give up on the Iraqis or to announce a timetable for starting a U.S. troop withdrawal.Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the panel, said after the hearing that he planned to work with Democrats to produce by January a bipartisan recommendation to the president on a way ahead in Iraq.Asked what the effect would be on sectarian violence if the U.S. began a troop withdrawal in four to six months, as proposed by some Democrats, Abizaid replied, “I believe it would increase.” It also would undermine U.S. efforts to increase Iraqis’ confidence that their own government is capable of assuring their security, he suggested.Pressed by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., on how much time the U.S. and Iraqi governments have to reduce the violence in Baghdad before it spirals beyond control, Abizaid said, “Four to six months.”At the same time, Carl Levin, the Democratic next chairman of the committee, said the administration must tell Iraq that U.S. troops will begin leaving in the next half year.”We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves. The only way for Iraqi leaders to squarely face that reality is for President Bush to tell them that the United States will begin a phased redeployment of our forces within four to six months,” said Levin, of Michigan.While the hearing put a spotlight on Democrats’ view that the administration’s Iraq policy is broken, it produced no new proposals for fixing it.
In one of the more contentious exchanges, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also a possible presidential candidate in 2008, challenged Abizaid’s analysis of the Iraqi situation and accused him of sticking to a failed course.”I’m of course disappointed that basically you’re advocating the status quo here today, which I think the American people in the last election said that is not an acceptable condition,” McCain said.In response, Abizaid said he was not arguing for the status quo. He said the key change that is needed now is to place more U.S. troops inside the Iraqi army and police units to train and advise them. Having visited Iraq as recently as this week, Abizaid said he remained optimistic that the Iraqis are capable of overcoming sharp internal differences and creating conditions for stability.Abizaid later testified to the House Armed Services Committee, where Democrats delivered angry rebukes of the war and took a more partisan tack.”It’s hard to find reason for optimism in Iraq today,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who will take over the panel next year.In a meeting with reporters, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who will be Senate majority leader in the next Congress, said Bush needs to improve Iraqi reconstruction efforts, re-equip U.S. military units whose gear has been damaged in the war and reduce the role of American troops.”We have to change the mission of the troops in Iraq to counterinsurgency, force protection, and have to do a much better job and have more trainers there,” Reid said.In a separate session on Capitol Hill, two of the government’s top intelligence officials offered relatively grim assessments of Iraq.”The perception of unchecked violence is creating an atmosphere of fear and hardening sectarianism which is empowering militias and vigilante groups, hastening middle-class exodus and shaking confidence in government and security forces,” Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in prepared testimony.Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, told a panel that some blame for Iraq’s trouble lies with neighboring Iran.”The Iranian hand is stoking violence and supporting even competing Shiite factions” in Iraq, Hayden said.Asked about his testimony in August that Iraq could fall into civil war and that the sectarian violence was as bad as he had ever seen it, Abizaid said the situation has improved though it is still troubling.”It’s certainly not as bad as the situation appeared back in August,” Abizaid said, adding that he saw growing confidence among Iraqis in their government. “It’s still at unacceptably high levels,” he said of the sect-on-sect violenceAlluding to Washington’s partisan battles over Iraq, Abizaid said that when he visits the U.S. capital he senses a “despair” that does not exist in Iraq when he visits with Iraqi officials or with American troops and their commanders.Abizaid said that adding large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq was not an option over the long run.”We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect,” Abizaid said, apparently referring to McCain’s call for more troops. “But when you look at the overall American force pool that’s available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.”