U.S. general warns against early withdrawal from Iraq
BAGHDAD: A U.S. general directing a major part of the offensive aimed at securing Baghdad has said that it will take until the spring for the operation to succeed and that an early U.S. withdrawal would clear the way for "the enemy to come back" to areas being cleared of insurgents.
Major General Rick Lynch, commanding 15,000 U.S. and about 7,000 Iraqi troops on Baghdad's southern approaches, on Sunday spoke more forcefully than any U.S. commander to date in urging that the so-called troop surge ordered by President George W. Bush continue into the spring of 2008. That would match the deadline of March 31 set by the Pentagon, which has said that limits on U.S. troops available for deployment will force an end to the increase by then.
"It's going to take us through the summer and fall to deny the enemy his sanctuaries" south of Baghdad, Lynch said at a news briefing in the capital. "And then it's going to take us through the first of the year and into the spring" to consolidate the gains being made by the U.S. offensive and to move enough Iraqi forces into the cleared areas to ensure that they remain so, he said.
The general spoke as momentum is gathering in Congress for an early withdrawal date for the 160,000 U.S. troops, as well as an accelerated end to the troop buildup, which has increased U.S. combat casualties in the past three months to the highest levels of the war. In renewed debate over the past week, congressional opponents of the war have demanded a withdrawal deadline, with some proposing that Congress use its war-funding powers to end the troop increase much sooner, possibly this fall.
Lynch, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division, said that all the U.S. troops who began an offensive south of Baghdad in mid-June were part of the five-month-old troop buildup, and that they were making "significant" gains in areas that were previously enemy sanctuaries. Pulling back before the job was completed, he said, would create "an environment where the enemy could come back and fill the void."
He implied that an early withdrawal would amount to abandoning Iraqi civilians who, he said, have rallied in support of the U.S. and Iraqi troops, and that it would leave the civilians exposed to renewed brutalities by extremist groups.
"When we go out there, the first question they ask is, 'Are you staying?' " he said. "And the second question is, 'How can we help?' " He added, "What we hear is, 'We've had enough of people attacking our villages, attacking our homes and attacking our children.' "
Lynch said his troops had promised local people that they would stay in the areas they had taken from the extremists until enough Iraqi forces were available to take over, and he said this had helped sustain a surge of feeling against the extremists.
He said locals had pinpointed hideouts of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an extremist group that claims ties to Osama bin Laden's network, that had been used to send suicide bombers into Baghdad. The locals also had helped troops locate 170 large arms caches. The general added that the local people had founded neighborhood patrols called "Iraqi provincial volunteers" that supplied their own weapons.
He declined to be drawn into what he called "the big debate in Washington" over the war, saying U.S. troops would continue to battle the enemy until ordered to do otherwise. But he made it clear that his sympathies lay with the Iraqis in his battle area, mostly between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, that extends about 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, south of Baghdad and includes four of Iraq's 18 provinces. The offensive he commands is part of a wider push by U.S. and Iraqi forces in all the areas surrounding Baghdad, and in the capital itself, that began in February.
"What they're worried about is our leaving," he said. "And our answer is, 'We're staying,' because my order from the corps commander is that we don't leave the battle space until we can hand over to the Iraqi security forces."
To hold on to recent gains, he said, would require at least a third more Iraqi troops than he has, and they would have to come from other battle areas, or from new units yet to complete their training.
"Everybody wants things to happen overnight, and that's not going to happen," he said.
Lynch said that he and other U.S. commanders worried that extremist groups under attack by the buildup might retaliate with a spectacular, focused assault on U.S. troops aimed at tipping the argument in Washington in favor of withdrawal.
He cited events in South Vietnam in January 1968, when coordinated, countrywide attacks by enemy troops, including one on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, helped push former President Lyndon Johnson into abandoning attempts to win the war. "We're concerned about some kind of Tet offensive that's going to affect the debate in Washington," the general said.