Top U.S. general warns against Iraq timetable
WASHINGTON: The top American military commander in the Middle East warned today against setting a timetable for withdrawing United States troops from Iraq and raised the possibility that more might be needed, if only temporarily, to help that country's security forces and prevent the nation from tearing itself apart.
"We have every option on the table, and we will present them to the chain of command," General John Abizaid, the head of the United States Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. But, in remarks that went against recommendations by some Democrats, he opposed setting any schedules for pulling troops out in the next several months.
The general emphasized that any increases would be temporary and for the purpose of hastening the transition to Iraqi control of internal security, and at several moments in his testimony, he said the emphasis should be on increasing the number of Iraqi troops, and sharpening their effectiveness.
Pressed by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's ranking Democrat and soon to be chairman, on whether the American options might include lowering troop levels, he replied, "Yes, senator, it goes all the way from increasing our U.S. combat forces, all the way down to withdrawing our U.S. combat forces."
But a bit later, under questioning from Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, General Abizaid said, "Under the current circumstances, I would not recommend troop withdrawals." The general said several times that setting specific timetables, as some Democrats have recommended, would be detrimental. General Abizaid and David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, told the committee that this moment in history is crucial for Iraq, and by extension the United States. The new government and the Iraqi people must seize the opportunity to create a stable, peaceful country of their own, they said.
General Abizaid, who warned in August that the country could slide into full-scale civil war if sectarian violence continued, said that violence was still at an "unacceptable" level, but that it had subsided somewhat in recent weeks.
"I'm very encouraged by my recent trip," the general said, having just returned from Iraq. But he added, "I would not say we've turned the corner."
Mr. Satterfield offered a similar assessment. While testifying that "much more work remains, and the time for that work is now," Mr. Satterfield said, "We believe a successful path forward can still be forged in Iraq."
There was no suggestion that the number of American troops in Iraq, now about 140,000 to 150,000, would be cut sharply soon. For months now, lawmakers in both parties have called for 2006 to be "a year of transition," by which they meant bringing many troops home by year's end.
General Abizaid almost provided some vindication for Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army chief of staff, who warned early in the Iraq campaign that several hundred thousand troops would be required to impose stability in Iraq once Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
"General Shinseki was right," General Abizaid said in response to a question by Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
General Abizaid emphasized, in an exchange with Mr. Graham, that he wanted to see Iraqi forces bolstered. "The question is, do we need more troops?" the general said. "And my answer is yes, we need more troops that are effective that are Iraqi."
"Do we need more American troops at the moment to quell the violence?" the senator asked.
"No," the general said. "I do not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem."
"Do we need less American troops?"
"I believe that the troop levels need to stay where they are," the general said. "We need to put more American capacity into Iraqi units to make them more capable in their ability to confront the sectarian problem."
"So it's your testimony that we don't need any change in troop levels to get this right?" the senator pressed.
"It is possible that we might have to go up in troop levels in order to increase the number of forces that go into the Iraqi security forces," the general said. "But I believe that's only temporary."
General Abizaid and Mr. Satterfield laid out a decidedly mixed assessment of progress in Iraq - professing optimism that progress is being made, that Iraq can still be stabilized, but that the Iraqi people and government must do more than they have to mend sectarian differences and take military initiatives.
Asked by Senator John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who is about to step down as panel chairman, whether he had confidence in the Iraqi forces' ability to assume "more and more responsibility for the military options," the general gave a carefully nuanced response.
"I have confidence that the Iraqi Army is up to the job, providing the Iraqi government shows the confidence in its own army and gives support to its own army to take the lead the way that they should," General Abizaid said. He added that "that has yet to be demonstrated," although he said he was encouraged by the Iraqi military's quick response to the mass kidnappings on Tuesday.
The witnesses said the next several months are crucial in reducing violence, especially in and around Baghdad.
It was clear, too, in the comments of senators from both parties that time is limited in a domestic political sense. Senator Warner noted that the length of time that the United States has been involved in Iraq is now about equal to the time it spent in World War II from Pearl Harbor to ultimate victory.
"Last month, when Senator Levin and I returned from Iraq, in press conferences, we both described the situation as we saw it," Mr. Warner said. "I used a phrase that was given to me by a Marine sergeant in the darkness as we were departing the Al Anbar province. I turned to him and I said how do you think things are doing? And he simply said, 'Senator, I simply say that Iraq is going sideways.' "
Sideways is not good enough, Mr. Levin said, asserting that last week's elections had sent a message that "stay the course" is not acceptable. Noting that the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, had rejected the notion of an American "timeline" for action on urgent Iraqi political issues, Mr. Levin said, "The Iraqi political leaders do not understand that there is a limit to the blood and treasure the American people are willing to spend."