The U.S. ambassador and top American commander in Iraq are set to leave their jobs with security no better than when they arrived, and they cautioned Monday against expecting significant success in quelling the violence soon.
Nearly a week after President Bush announced he was sending 21,500 more American troops to Iraq — 17,500 of those to Baghdad — the commander Gen. George Casey said he did not expect significant results until the summer and fall. It was the first time he offered a time frame for the new security plan.
“As with any plan, there are no guarantees of success, and it’s not going to happen overnight, but with sustained political support and the concentrated efforts on all sides I believe that this plan can work,” Casey told a news conference.
“I think you’ll see a gradual evolution over the next two to three months, and then you’ll see things continue to get better up through the summer and fall. It’ll take some time,” he said.
The general said the new troops already had begun to arrive, but he declined to say when the operation would begin.
“I don’t want to talk too much about troop movements, but the initial elements of the first group are already here,” he said, adding that reports that 4,000 U.S. troops had reached Baghdad were “a little high.”
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who joined Casey at the podium, said Washington was not imposing deadlines on the Iraqi government.
He also said he understood why Iraqis were wary about putting their faith in another security operation — the third aimed at restoring peace in the capital since Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took office in May.
Sectarian violence has increased since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, and the United Nations has said as many as 100 Iraqis die violently each day.
“I can understand and empathize with the Iraqi people. They certainly have suffered a lot. And they’ve heard positive predictions before, and all of that is true,” he said. “But I want them to know that those predictions made before ... were made with the best of intentions, with good plans developed based on understanding of the circumstances of the time.”
He and Casey stressed that this plan was different because it had a stronger commitment from the Iraqi leadership, and because of assurances that no areas of Baghdad would be allowed to serve as sanctuaries for gunmen. Those comments were a direct reference to past interference by al-Maliki to protect the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the Iraqi leader’s key political backers.
Khalilzad: No micromanagement
“No militia will be a replacement for the state or control local security,” the ambassador said. “The military commanders will have freedom of action and the ability to do what’s needed without political interference or micromanagement. They won’t be told, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t go into this or that neighborhood.’ Therefore it will be fair.”
The officials showed little enthusiasm as they gave their responses, which mirrored what other U.S. officials have said in defense of Bush’s widely unpopular plan to send more troops. Many in the Democratic-controlled Congress favoring a phased withdrawal of American troops, along with new diplomatic efforts with Iraq’s neighbors.
Neither Casey, who assumed command on July 1, 2004, and will cede command of U.S. forces to Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, nor Khalilzad offered much new information in response to questions from the Baghdad press corps.
Khalilzad, who was named to the Baghdad post in April 2005, has been nominated to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is being replaced in Iraq by Ryan Crocker, current ambassador to Pakistan.
Casey dismissed reports about disagreements between Iraqi and U.S. officials over the command structure of the operation to curb sectarian violence in Baghdad, although Iraqi officials said many hotly disputed issues were unresolved.
He asserted that al-Maliki had approved the increase of 21,500 new American troops into Iraq and would be consulted on all future U.S. troop additions or withdrawals. But at the same time, he pledged that “American forces will remain under American command, period, no issues.”
“Our forces, frankly, will not be at greater risk, although the more forces you bring here, the greater the risk of casualties to our forces. But they won’t be put at risk because of the command relationships,” he said.