The U.S. military commander in one of the more troubled areas of Iraq said Friday that embracing Sen. John Warner’s call to begin troop withdrawals before the end of the year would be “a giant step backward.”
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of troops south of Baghdad, said that in such a scenario, militants pushed from his sector in recent operations would quickly return.
“If coalition soldiers were to leave, having fought hard for that terrain, having denied the enemy their sanctuaries, what’d happen is the enemy would come back,” Lynch said.
“He’d start building the bombs again, he’d start attacking the locals again and he’d start exporting that violence into Baghdad and we would take a giant step backward,” Lynch told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Iraq.
He said that recent gains resulted from the buildup of troops in Iraq and that he needs all the forces he has until Iraqis are able to step up and take over, perhaps some time next year.
Lynch was asked to respond to comments by Warner that President Bush should announce at least a small reduction in forces by Christmas.
Warner, R-Va., former chairman of the Armed Services Committee and Navy secretary during the Vietnam War, said Thursday that Bush would be sending a powerful message to Iraq’s government that the U.S. commitment there is not open-ended.
Warner says the president should get to decide when and how many troops should leave. He also did not mention any places where he thought reductions were possible in Iraq, where some regions are worse than others.
Rising pressure on Bush?
In another reaction Friday, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee also said he disagreed with Warners’s idea, but that Bush needs to move away from trying to establish democracy in Iraq and concentrate instead on security and stability.
“Establishing a democracy in the time frame that we’ve wanted to do it, over the period of three to five years, was too big of a reach,” Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra said.
Still, Warner’s call for troop withdrawals is likely to ratchet up pressure on Bush, who has opposed setting a date for any drawdown and contends that conditions on the ground should dictate deployments.
“I’m hopeful that this (redeployment) could lead to more emphasis on the Iraqi forces taking the major responsibility, as it relates to the internal insurgency in that country,” the Virginia Republican said.
Warner’s suggestion comes as a new intelligence assessment says Iraqis have failed to govern effectively or reach the political compromises believed necessary to tamp down sectarian violence.
Overall, the report finds that Iraq’s security will continue to “improve modestly” over the next six to 12 months, provided that coalition forces mount strong counterinsurgency operations and mentor Iraqi forces. But even then, violence levels will remain high as the country struggles to achieve national political reconciliation, and the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is likely to become increasingly vulnerable because of criticism from various Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
“The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decision-making, and increased Maliki’s vulnerability” to factions that could form a rivaling coalition, the document says.
Pelosi: U.S. needs a new course
Democrats say the grim report and Warner’s conclusion bolster their position that Bush should change course and start bringing troops home this fall. Party leaders this year tried to pass legislation ordering troops home this fall, but repeatedly fell short of the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass.
“Our military has performed their duties excellently, but the purpose of the escalation in Iraq was to create a secure environment in which political change could occur, and it is clear that the Iraqi leaders have failed to make progress,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Republican leaders countered that the intelligence assessment bolsters their position that U.S. troops should stay. The report warns that limiting the mission of U.S. forces to a support role and counterterrorist operations — as Democrats and some Republicans suggest — would “erode security gains achieved thus far.”
“The fact that Democratic leaders continue to push for precipitous withdrawal despite the significant progress our troops are making shows just how deeply invested they are in failure,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Democrats agree the military has made substantial gains in Iraq, but they say the progress made is useless if the Iraqi government is unable to take control.