- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

A task force headed by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad agreed yesterday on guidelines for the withdrawal of U.S. and other forces, with two key troop contributors planning major drawdowns by year’s end.

“The key consideration is the capability of Iraqi security forces,” said a U.S. military statement, which identified other members of the task force as U.S. Gen. George Casey Jr., the Iraqi ministers of interior and defense, Iraq’s national security adviser and British Ambassador William Patey.

Other considerations include the capacity of local governments to control their areas and provide basic services, the U.S. command in Baghdad said. The commission is to deliver its final recommendations to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari by Sept. 26.

The Washington Times first reported on Saturday that the Pentagon planned to establish the task force of senior U.S. and Iraqi officials to determine when large numbers of American troops could be brought home.

Seth Jones, senior Iraq analyst for the Rand Corp., said Washington’s two strongest allies in Iraq plan to leave in large numbers by the end of the year. Polish forces, based in the central-south area, will depart, and a majority of British troops, stationed mainly in the south, also will go, he said.

A British Embassy spokesman in Washington said: “No decision on the future posture of UK forces in Iraq has been taken. Assisting Iraq to improve its security environment remains at the top of our agenda, and we are working hard to do this.”

Mr. Jones said the timing of any major reduction in coalition forces will depend on several key factors, starting with the national elections scheduled for December.

A second factor will be how comfortable coalition forces feel in ceding control to Iraqi security forces of an increased amount of territory in the center and center-south of the country.

A third factor, which used to be critical but has dropped from current withdrawal scenarios, is defeating the violent insurgency that is holding Iraq’s economy hostage.

“It is pretty clear that the length of most successful counterinsurgencies is about nine years on average. I don’t think anyone has the political stomach to wait that long,” said Mr. Jones.

Mr. al-Jaafari’s spokesman said that a gradual withdrawal joined with political progress might weaken support for the insurgents, who have tried to build support by portraying American troops as foreign occupiers.

“The U.S. is in the middle of a political conflict, not just security,” said al-Jaafari spokesman Laith Kubba in a telephone interview from Iraq.

Mr. Kubba said that Iraqi security forces — police, military and national guard — were capable of controlling parts of the country. In other areas, he said, “it is critical that the U.S. forces remain until Iraqi forces are up to it. Certainly the western provinces.”

Insurgents have killed 21 Marines since Monday in towns along the Euphrates River in western al Anbar province.

The task force is looking not just at reducing forces, but is examining what areas would be safest to leave, said Mr. Jones. It is also considering changes in the composition of the forces.

“The Poles are going to be close to zero by the end of the year, and the British are going to largely withdraw and move their forces to Afghanistan, assuming the elections happen by December 2005” and Iraqi forces can take over, said Mr. Jones.

Mr. Kubba said: “If we can get a better political environment, this will enhance the [overall] environment a great deal and reduce a great deal the dependency on guns.”

The concern, said Mr. Jones, is that as coalition forces withdraw, local militias such as radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi forces in the south will step in, weakening the central government’s control over the country.

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