- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Why does no one know 30 U.S. bases in Iraq have been turned over to Iraqis with American forces withdrawn to more remote and defensible fortifications?

In early November, U.S. troops withdrew from the first major installation in the troubled Sunni region, Saddam Hussein’s sprawling 18-palace hill compound in his Tikrit hometown, magnificently straddling the Tigris River, that so impressed this visitor then. Gen. Donald Alston offhandedly mentioned this was the 30th U.S. base turned over to Iraq this year. Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, 42nd Infantry Division commander, told reporters the move was meant to “reduce the footprint” of U.S. forces in the area to “discourage attacks and prepare the way for eventual reduction” of U.S. troops.

Somehow this crucial fact was missing from the debate in Congress recently on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. President George W. Bush was understandably pleased to end with both houses of Congress rejecting resolutions to withdraw U.S. troops immediately. But the fact the Senate voted 79-19 on a Republican chairman’s resolution to designate the year 2006 as “a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty … thereby creating the conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq” represents a momentous change regarding the war. Polls showed two-thirds of the public also wanted a plan for disengagement, although not necessarily a published one available to the enemy.

It’s a shame but President Bush and the American military have had such a plan almost from the start but have allowed idealistic rhetoric to overshadow what is taking place in Iraq. As a journalist and political science professor, this columnist was invited by the Defense Department to tour the major Iraqi bases in November 2003 and luckily returned to tell the tale.

Political science requires asking questions about idealistic goals such as transforming Iraq into a democracy and spreading democracy through the entire Middle East, especially given Iraq’s history and the deep divides between majority Shi’ite, former-ruling Sunni and culturally distinct Kurd peoples, each with separate regional strongholds.

On the ground, it immediately became apparent the actual goals were more modest. American administrator L. Paul Bremer clearly set ethnic peace and local federalism as the goals. Military commanders emphasized turning over authority to the Iraqis and militarily separating U.S. troops from direct policing and insurgency control in more defensible locations.

President Bush even then said that U.S. troops would be drawn down to 100,000 by mid-2004. In a nationally televised April 2004 news conference, the president noted “Iraqis will then elect a permanent government by Dec. 15, 2005 — an event that will mark the completion of Iraq’s transition from dictatorship to freedom,” implying U.S. forces would no longer be required for democracy. This rough plan was obscured when he also said troops would stay “as long as necessary” but also added the ambiguous “and not one day more.”

Still, with all that has happened since, this general plan is not so far off course. Certainly, the Sunni insurgency has been stronger and more persistent than estimated and the Shi’ites and Kurds have been more interested in building their own regions than defeating the insurgency. Iraqi forces have been increased and U.S. troop levels were only temporarily increased again to 160,000 for the December 2005 election.

In testimony before Congress, military leaders have made it clear troop levels will be reduced substantially in 2006 after the election to 100,000 or fewer, delayed but moving in the planned direction. Iraqi leaders have called for reduced U.S. troop levels too.

In 2003, military leaders told us this was the plan. Supporters of the military are afraid any news of withdrawal will demonstrate lack of resolve and diminish support for the war while those opposed fear resistance will evaporate if people understand the U.S. presence is being reduced.

However useful this posture might have been in the past, the collapse of poll and Senate support suggests it is time for the administration to let the people in on the real strategy.

At this point, support for the military is essential but must be for the real disengagement strategy, not the rhetorical ideal. There is little time. Congressional elections occur next November. The U.N. mandate for U.S. occupation was recently extended until Dec. 31, 2006. It does not seem international, congressional or public patience will endure longer.

A rational redeployment will require several more months. All of the skill of U.S. military forces will be needed to disengage by then and declare victory on the way out after the election.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a professor at Bellevue University, a columnist and editor of ConservativeBattleline.com.

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