WASHINGTON — The momentum in Congress seems to be shifting in favor of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
“The tide has turned,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Monday, as she called for the Senate to pass a measure requiring President Bush to begin a troop withdrawal.
“A growing number of Republicans... are now speaking against the failed strategy in Iraq, and that's good,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters, referring to senators such as Snowe.
Reid said these Republicans “must put their words into action by voting with us to change course and responsibly end this war.”
But, as Reid reminded reporters Monday, when he says “responsibly end this war” he does not mean “withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq.”
'Tens of thousands' could stay in Iraq
Reid noted that even the measure he co-sponsored with Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., calling on Bush to pull most troops out by next April would permit many soldiers to stay in Iraq.
“Understand even if you take (the) Feingold-Reid (proposal), Feingold-Reid called for American troops to remain in Iraq to do counterterrorism, to protect our assets in Iraq, to train the Iraqis,” Reid explained. “There's estimates that that would still leave tens of thousands of troops in Iraq.”
He also said, “No one is calling for a precipitous withdrawal in Iraq.”
But the crux of the debate in Congress and among presidential contenders is not precipitous withdrawal versus gradual withdrawal; instead it is total withdrawal versus a strategy that would leave thousands of U.S. troops there.
Assessment after tenth trip to Iraq
Just back from his tenth trip to Iraq, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., stressed Monday that some U.S. troops could remain safely in bases in Kurdistan and western Iraq.
“Most of the major players (in Iraq) recognize the value of an American presence they might disagree about size,” he said. “I think across sectarian lines, there is a feeling that the training of an appropriately professional military force is in their self-interest.”
The Rhode Island Democrat, a member of the Armed Services Committee and an Army veteran, said “I think also there is a concern that a total withdrawal of American forces very quickly would inject so much uncertainty in the situation that they’d be better off with some type of presence.”
On Tuesday, Reed, along with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., proposed an amendment to the defense authorization bill requiring a reduction in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq to begin within 120 days.
Reed and Levin want U.S. forces to shift to limited counterterrorism and training missions.
Their amendment does not specify the number of troops that would be withdrawn from Iraq. It simply says that by April 2008 Bush would need to make some reduction.
"We don't want to get mired down in a specific debate over how many troops would remain for these limited missions." Levin said.
The Republican co-sponsor of the Levin-Reed amendment, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, told reporters Tuesday afternoon, "What I like about it is that it says that America will no longer be the policeman of the civil war, but no terrorist in Iraq can ever sleep peacefully because it does not call for pullout from Iraq, but for a responsible way forward that protects America's interests and personnel and keeps al-Qaida on the run."
Would Iraq descend even further into anarchy if the Levin-Reed proposal became law, making it impossible for U.S. troops to carry out even limited missions?
"We're trying to increase the chances of success in Iraq," said Levin, "trying to find a way, if there is a way, to end the sectarian violence before it becomes even more of an all-out civil war."
But, as for ever-greater anarchy, Levin said, "We can not foreclose that possibility."
Reed said American forces could be stationed in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq and he added, “Way out in western Iraq, there are places where we have bases now which have not been challenged” by insurgent attacks.
“So operationally there are places where you could position forces within the country that will increase immensely their protection against attack,” Reed said.
But don’t some Americans want all the troops out of Iraq? “You have people who are very sincerely talking about withdrawal,” Reed acknowledged. “I think they would probably add, ‘but in a manner that doesn’t disadvantage the government of Iraq’ and in some respect those two perspectives might come together."
Reed said, "I think there’s a very small group of people who want everybody out within a month. That’s probably not operationally feasible."
He said many senators are demanding that the president change U.S. strategy "from what looks like an open-ended commitment of doing anything necessary to create a thriving liberal democracy and market economy, to much more focused missions" such as training Iraqi security forces.
Reed also mentioned the remaining need for U.S. forces in Iraq to attack al-Qaida bases and operations “not just there, but around the world. This notion of striking terrorists is something people not only understand, but they know it’s important.”
Snowe sees troops remaining
Snowe, too, said she could accept something less than total withdrawal.
“Most (senators) on both sides are in agreement about keeping forces for a change of mission and that’s consistent with the Iraq Study Group recommendation which was either training the Iraqis or force protection or focusing on al-Qaida,” Snowe said. “And territorial integrity is another objective that the Iraq Study Group recommended. So, yes, there would be some forces remaining for those explicit purposes.”
Do her constituents understand that would leave tens of thousands of American soldier and Marines in Iraq?
“People in Maine and across the country understand that the way this evolves is to make sure that we don’t leave chaos behind,” she said.
So the Senate consensus this week is building for partial withdrawal of American forces, with the remaining troops — the exact number unspecified by senators who speak on the topic — garrisoned inside U.S. bases in Iraq.
This outcome would not satisfy presidential contender Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who has staked out the position of calling for complete exit of U.S. troops from Iraq.
“There is a fundamental difference in this campaign — and that's how many troops each of us would leave behind. I would leave zero troops. Not a single one,” Richardson told a group of Democratic activists in Washington in a speech last month.
Among Richardson’s rivals for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., have also spoken of the need to retain some U.S. forces in Iraq.
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