- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The top tactical commander in Iraq says an abrupt pullout of U.S. troops would be “destabilizing” and labeled “disturbing” Washington’s heated political debate that has some Democrats calling the war unwinnable.

Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, who commands the Multinational Corps Iraq, said that 36 Iraqi battalions, about one-third of the total force, are now responsible for their own security sectors and can fight the insurgency. But they are not yet ready to operate totally independent of U.S. supply lines and tactical advice.

Because of that, he said, now is not the time for an American withdrawal.

“Iraqi security forces are able to conduct operations in a large portion of their area with only limited coalition support,” Gen. Vines told Pentagon reporters via a teleconference from Baghdad. “They do require our support at this time. That support will be increasingly less over a period of time, but a precipitous pullout, I believe, would be destabilizing.”

Gen. Vines’ U.S. troops, which number 160,000, are now fighting against a backdrop of a heated debate in Washington over the course of the war. Some Democrats want a fixed timetable for troop withdrawals, a move President Bush rejects because, he says, it sends the wrong signal to terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, upped the ante last week. He called the war unwinnable and asked that a six-month withdrawal from Iraq begin immediately, triggering a fierce House debate Friday night on a resolution which would call for just that. It failed 403-3.

Even before the troop debate, Democrats charged that the commander in chief deliberately misstated the intelligence on Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction. The White House struck back, starting last week, saying the president presented the same intelligence on WMD that some Democrats used to justify their vote for using force to oust Saddam.

“Of course the debate and the bitterness is disturbing,” Gen. Vines said. “But after all, we are a democracy, and that is what democracy is about is people will have differences of opinions.”

Asked about troops’ morale, Gen. Vines said, “Certainly soldiers are concerned about whether or not they enjoy the support of not only their elected representatives, but the people, and they know that they have their support.”

Gen. John Abizaid, the top commander for Iraq, told The Washington Times on Monday that Washington needs to be patient. He predicted that Dec. 15 elections to pick a permanent Iraqi government and the maturation of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will lead to progress in 2006 in subduing the insurgency.

“It’s not hard to deal with patience in the Middle East. Everyone is patient,” the four-star general said.

“The only problem [is] that there appears to be a patience problem … within the Beltway,” he said. “When I talk to civilian audiences, I don’t get the same sense of impatience that I detect here in the Beltway.”

Defense sources say it is likely that Gen. Abizaid next year will recommend a sizable U.S. troop reduction below what is considered the base of 138,000. The Pentagon temporarily pushed the level to 160,000 to provide added security for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and the Dec. 15 parliamentary election.

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