Video: Is U.S. strategy in Iraq changing?

updated 10/24/2006 8:09:21 PM ET 2006-10-25T00:09:21

The top American general said Tuesday he is not discouraged by what other U.S. commanders have described as disappointing progress in securing Baghdad, but he predicted no quick turnaround.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that his optimism about Iraq’s future is based on his belief that most Iraqis want peace and stability. He also said Iraqis have plenty of incentive to halt the sectarian violence that threatens to tear their country apart.

“The great incentive inside of Iraq with the Iraqi people is their own self-pride and determination that they want to stand on their own; they want to be free; they want to determine their own way ahead,” Pace said.

While military commanders may not be discouraged, Republicans fighting to keep control of Congress are frustrated with the lack of progress in Baghdad so close to the Nov. 7 elections.

In a letter released Tuesday, 33 House Republicans urged Bush to send into Baghdad any proficient Iraqi units available. Five of the Republicans — Reps. Thelma Drake of Virginia, Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado, Geoff Davis of Kentucky, Rob Simmons of Connecticut and John Doolittle of California — are in tight political races.

“It is crucial that both the U.S. and Iraqi governments recognize that as the battle in Iraq has intensified, so has the need to send Iraqi battalions into the heart of battle,” the lawmakers wrote. “Now is exactly the time to do so.”

A call for faster action
President Bush’s national security adviser said Tuesday the Iraqis are starting to make the tough decisions needed to halt rising sectarian violence, but must do more quickly.

Stephen Hadley said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the fledging government are starting to take steps aimed at quelling the rising sectarian violence and moving Iraq toward prosperity and peace.

“I think they’ve got to do more and they’ve got to do it faster,” Hadley said in a radio interview at the White House. “And I think if you talked to Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki he would say, to you, the same thing.”

With just two weeks until a crucial Election Day at home, the White House wants to ease political anxieties about security in Iraq. But at the same time it has rebuffed calls for a dramatic policy shift in the wartorn nation.

U.S. officials in Iraq said Tuesday that government leaders there have agreed to develop a timeline by the end of the year for progress in stabilizing Iraq and reducing violence that has killed 300 Iraqi troops during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan alone.

U.S. officials: Iraqi control in 12-18 months
At a news conference, Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Iraqi forces should be able to take control of security in the next 12 to 18 months with minimal American support.

“Iraqi leaders have agreed to a timeline for making the hard decisions needed to resolve these issues,” Khalilzad said. “President Talabani has made these commitments public. The United States and its coalition partners will support Prime Minister Maliki and others in their effort to meet their benchmarks.”

Casey also said he felt the United States should continue to focus on drawing down the number of American forces in the country, adding that he would not hesitate to ask for more troops if he felt they were necessary.

“We’re not making the progress we would like and that’s why we have to look at what we are doing and see what we need to change to get the kind of progress that we need,” Hadley told National Public Radio. “You don’t need a timetable to be able and willing to say to the Iraqis, ‘Look, if this is going to work and succeed, you have to step up and make some very difficult choices.’”

Pessimistic prediction
He predicted that stability and security will not be achieved in Iraq before Bush leaves the White House.

“Is there going to be peace? Is there going to the end of any violence? Of course not. This violence is going to go on for a long time,” Hadley said. “But what you hope for is a situation where Iraqi governmental institutions and Iraqi security forces can manage and contain the violence so that it does not threaten the integrity of the Iraqi state and the ability of the Iraqi state to bring prosperity and economic life to its community.”

Bush is under increasing pressure from lawmakers in both parties to change his war plan.

Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said the timeline announced in Baghdad should have been shorter. In recent fighting in Baghdad, only two of the requested six battalions of Iraqi forces showed up to fight, he said.

“Iraq is their country and increasingly and more quickly, the Iraqi forces will have to shoulder this burden,” Skelton said. “I have been saying this to the president and the secretary of defense for the last two years. While it is helpful to lay out a timeline for the training of the Iraqi forces, after three and a half years of training, this timeline is too long.”

'On the verge of chaos'
“We’re on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Monday in an Associated Press interview. U.S. and Iraqi officials should be held accountable for the lack of progress, said Graham, a Republican who is a frequent critic of the administration’s policies.

Asked who in particular should be held accountable — Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, perhaps, or the generals leading the war — Graham said: “All of them. It’s their job to come up with a game plan” to end the violence.

In a CNBC interview, Bush said, “Well, I’ve been talking about a change in tactics ever since I — ever since we went in, because the role of the commander in chief is to say to our generals, ‘You adjust to the enemy on the battlefield.”’

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the United States would adjust its Iraq strategy but would not issue any ultimatums to the Iraqis. “Are there dramatic shifts in policy? The answer is no,” Snow said Monday.

He acknowledged, however, that Bush no longer is saying that the United States will “stay the course” in Iraq.

“He stopped using it,” Snow said of that phrase, adding that it left the impression that the administration was not adjusting its strategy to realities in Baghdad.

Kerry: Still a failed strategy
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the administration ditched the “stay the course” rhetoric in time for the midterm elections, but still is pursuing a failed strategy.

“One day President Bush invites comparisons to Vietnam. The next day Vice President (Dick) Cheney says Iraq is going remarkably well, and everyday the civil war intensifies and young Americans continue to die,” Kerry said. “It is time to get tough with the Iraqis. Our own generals argue there’s no military solution in Iraq. We can’t wait a year for a political solution in Iraq.”

Rumsfeld said U.S. government and military officials were working with Iraq to set a broad timetable for Iraqis to take over 16 provinces still being controlled by U.S. troops. But he said officials were not talking about penalizing the Iraqis if they don’t hit certain benchmarks.

The Iraqis have taken control of two southern provinces but have been slow to take the lead in others, particularly those around Baghdad and in the volatile regions north and west of the capital. Rumsfeld said specific target dates probably will not be set.

NBC News contributed to this report.

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