U.S. Army planning for longer stay in IraqWASHINGTON The U.S. Army is preparing to keep more than 100,000 soldiers in Iraq for four years or more if need be, a top general has said, drawing expressions of confusion and frustration from senior senators who said the administration was sending mixed signals about how long U.S. forces would remain.
General Peter Schoomaker said over the weekend that those numbers represented planning for a "worse case" scenario, and that they could be adjusted to a range of lower levels, depending on requests from commanders in Iraq.
Schoomaker made the comments in an interview with an Associated Press reporter aboard an army jet en route to Washington from Kansas City, Missouri, where he spoke to a veterans group.
The general expressed confidence that the army could provide sufficient forces to fight the Iraqi insurgency for years. But he did not predict that this outcome was likely, saying rather that advance planning required that all possibilities be considered.
Despite his careful language, some Democrats said Schoomaker should have been less forthcoming about the plans. Even Republicans strongly supporting President George W. Bush said more needed to be done to inform and reassure an increasingly restive public.
"It sends the wrong message to the Iraqis that we might still be there" in four years, said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. Instead, Levin said on CNN, the message should be that Iraqis need to move with utmost speed to assume full power.
A Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, expressed serious frustration with what he said were conflicting administration messages on Iraq, which he said was looking increasingly like the Vietnam War. Asked on ABC-TV whether he agreed with Schoomaker that sufficient troops could be provided for four more years, Hagel said: "No, and I think that it's just complete folly."
Only weeks earlier, he noted, senior generals and administration officials were pointing to partial troop withdrawals as early as spring.
"Now we don't know how long we're going to stay," he said.
"We are locked into a bogged down problem not unsimilar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam," Hagel continued. "What I think the White House does not yet understand - and some of my colleagues - the dam has broke on this policy."
He added: "I think our involvement there has destabilized the Middle East. And the longer we stay there, I think the further destabilization will occur."
But Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican of California, defended Schoomaker's projections as part of necessary planning. "A military leader has to take the worst-case scenario and he has to make sure that we have the right people and enough people for those rotations," he said on CNN. "That's precisely what General Schoomaker is doing."
In recent weeks, senior Pentagon officials described plans for a potential troop reduction as early as spring, assuming certain conditions were met: the drafting and popular approval of an Iraqi constitution and elections for a new government.
In a classified briefing last month, the top American commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, outlined a plan to gradually reduce U.S. forces in Iraq by 20,000 to 30,000 troops by spring, The New York Times reported.
Separately, the top American general in Iraq, General George Casey, said that the Pentagon could make "some fairly substantial reductions" in troops by next spring if things went well.
Bush, seeking to clarify his intentions, said a few days later that no decision for springtime withdrawals had been made. The readiness of Iraqi troops to take over in large numbers remained unclear, he indicated, saying, "Pulling the troops out now would send a terrible signal to the enemy." Amid the unrelenting violence in Iraq, American support for the president's Iraq policy has declined steadily, polls show, and the administration has wrestled with ways to rebuild that backing.
The vigil outside the president's Texas ranch by Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, and her supporters, has drawn new attention to the costs of war. Administration spokesmen appear torn between efforts to reassure Americans that an end to the occupation of Iraq is in sight - at least with the current numbers of 138,000 or so - and efforts to prepare the public for what could be an extended presence.
Bush aides say the president plans to make at least three speeches in the next few weeks aimed at bolstering support. The speeches, to be made against military backdrops, would argue for the need for the same sort of patience on Iraq that Americans displayed in World War II, the aides said. His remarks may have been previewed Sunday by a supporter, Senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia.
"Iraq is a central front in the war on terror, and it is absolutely essential that we win it," he said on ABC. "We cannot tuck tail and run. We have to prevail. We must win. If we lose, that will destabilize the Middle East. And I think that progress is being made."
Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, last week became the first senator to call for a specific date for U.S. withdrawal. He defended that call on Sunday, while saying his proposal envisaged a target date of the end of 2006, not a firm deadline.
Without such a target, he said on NBC, "you can lose the support of the American people. That's what I'm hearing." Rather than emboldening insurgents, as the administration and other critics have said, a target date would give the Iraqi government greater credibility, he said.
"Look, we're not going to stay there till the very last insurgent is captured or killed; that's impossible," he said. But by the end of 2006, Feingold predicted, "we will have done about as much as we should do."
Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi and a former majority leader, said on NBC: "We are winning. And we have to continue to push forward." But public impatience is growing, even in a conservative state like Mississippi, where the military and Bush are particularly popular, he said.