The top U.S. commander in the Middle East warned Congress Wednesday against setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, putting him at odds with resurgent Democrats pressing President Bush to start pulling out of the violence-torn country.
Gen. John Abizaid spoke as the Senate Armed Services Committee began re-examining U.S. policy in the wake of last week’s elections, which gave Democrats control of Congress starting next year and was widely seen as a repudiation of the administration’s war policies.
Democrats have been coalescing around a call for beginning a U.S. withdrawal in coming months. In arguing against a timetable for troop withdrawals, Abizaid told the committee that he and other commanders need flexibility in managing U.S. forces and determining how and when to pass on responsibility to Iraqi forces.
“Specific timetables limit that flexibility,” Abizaid said.
Asked directly what effect he foresaw on sectarian violence if Congress legislated a phased U.S. withdrawal starting in four to six months, Abizaid replied, “I believe it would increase.”
“It seems to me that the prudent course ahead is to keep the troop levels about where they are,” Abizaid said, while placing larger teams of U.S. military advisers inside Iraqi army and police units. He said that increased emphasis on advising Iraqi units might be accomplished without significantly increasing the total U.S. force in the country.
With voters expressing overwhelming opposition to the war, Bush the day after the election expressed a willingness to consider fresh approaches to Iraq policy and announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had become a symbol of the unpopular war.
GOP dissatisfaction with the war
Even some Republicans on the Senate panel voiced a measure of frustration at the long and costly war in Iraq.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the committee chairman, noted that the conflict has lasted as long as World War II, with the Iraqi government still unable to stand on its own and assert authority over security forces.
“How do you explain that in simple terms to the American people?” he asked in his opening statement.
Abizaid said he believes U.S. troop levels, now at about 141,000, should stay steady but may have to rise temporarily to train and advise Iraqi military units. No reductions are advisable until the Iraqi security forces become more capable of dealing with the insurgency, securing Baghdad and dealing with the Shiite militia problem, he said.
“Our troop posture needs to stay where it is,” for the time being, he said.
In one of the day’s most contentious clashes, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., challenged Abizaid on his analysis of the situation and complained that he was advocating no major changes in U.S. policy. McCain, a possible 2008 presidential candidate, has called for adding thousands more U.S. combat troops in Iraq to help fight the insurgency and halt sectarian violence in Baghdad.
“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.
Abizaid calls for support inside Iraqi army
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 these forces in planning and executing missions.
Another possible 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said she saw no evidence that conditions inside Iraq were improving.
“Hope is not a strategy,” she said.
Citing administration claims of progress, she said, “The brutal fact is, it is not happening.”
Clinton asked about the wisdom of partitioning Iraq along sectarian lines, with autonomous regions for the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.
“Partition in Iraq could only be achieved at an expense of human suffering and bloodshed and forced dislocation that would be both profound and wholly unacceptable, I believe, to the American people,” said David Satterfield, the senior State Department adviser on Iraq. “It is wholly unacceptable to this administration.”
'I remain optimistic'
Pressed by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., on how much time the U.S. and Iraqi government have to reduce the violence in Baghdad before it spirals beyond control, Abizaid said, “Four to six months.”
Developing a “capable, independent” Iraqi government and armed forces “will set the conditions for withdrawal” of U.S. forces, Abizaid said. He offered no timetable for reaching that point. But he said earlier, “I remain optimistic we can stabilize Iraq.”
He also acknowledged under questioning that Anbar province, where the Sunni insurgency is strongest, “is not under control.” Nonetheless, he said, the main U.S. military effort needs to be in Baghdad rather than Anbar.
Reflecting the division of opinion on how to proceed in Iraq, the next chairman of the committee said the administration must tell Iraq that U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in four to six months in order to force them to take responsibility for their own future.
“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 Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
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 that more recently the situation has improved, while still troubling. He visited Baghdad in recent days.
“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 violence “I wouldn’t say that we have turned the corner in this regard, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was in August.”
Asked by Levin whether he was considering increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Abizaid said he was considering “all the way from increasing U.S. combat forces all the way down to withdrawing” them. He said he would present recommendations to his superiors.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first on Iraq policy since the Nov. 7 elections, when voters handed Democrats control of Congress in part because of their frustration over the lack of progress in Iraq. Just over a third of the public approves of Bush’s handling of the war, according to AP-Ipsos polling last month. About six in 10 think the U.S. military action in Iraq was a mistake.
Satterfield told the committee that the situation must not reach the point where ordinary Iraqis believe they are better protected by unauthorized militias than by their own government.
“Hope for a united Iraqi will crumble,” if that happens, he said. “Such an outcome in Iraq is unacceptable. It would undermine U.S. national interests in Iraq and in the broader region. And it would lead to a humanitarian disaster for the Iraqi people.”