- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

President Bush and the Iraq Study Group are not far apart when it comes to a final plan for getting U.S. troops out of Iraq.

A senior commander in Iraq said yesterday the group’s idea to shift more duties to Iraqis and gradually pull out forces is current Pentagon policy.

“It certainly reflects what we’re doing now,” Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon when asked to comment on the study group. “I can certainly see great opportunity to reduce the amount of combat forces on the ground in Multinational Division North and turn more responsibility over to Iraqi security forces.”

Noting that it took time to train an army in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gen. Mixon added, “We need to allow the Iraqis the same time to get their security forces on the ground, to get their government working and then have a gradual withdrawal of American security forces, but continue to partner with them over the long term.”

Meanwhile in Baghdad yesterday, the Associated Press reported that U.S. and Iraqi forces launched six raids against insurgents, including one that killed at least three Iraqis in house-to-house fighting and another in which American forces wounded a female Iraqi who the U.S. command said was being used as a “human shield.”

In some of the fiercest fighting, Iraqi soldiers backed by U.S. helicopters swept through Fadhil, one of Baghdad’s oldest areas, in house-to-house combat, police Lt. Ali Muhsin said.

Concerning the Iraq Study Group report expected Wednesday, Mr. Bush opposes an immediate troop pullout, as some Democrats have suggested. He is also against a date-certain timeline for bringing out the current 15 brigades, unit by unit, as Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, is pushing.

On those two points, the study group essentially agrees with Mr. Bush.

It does, however, seek a goal of 18 months to pull out most combat troops, leaving support units for the Iraqi army and police. But it says the withdrawal could be delayed because of battlefield conditions. Mr. Bush has said conditions in the war should dictate a gradual withdrawal, not a rigid timeline.

Nonetheless, the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, Indiana Democrat, does put more pressure on the White House to act. The Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council are doing their own strategy reviews.

The study group’s idea is similar to a plan announced in October by Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. He said he was accelerating the training of Iraq’s 300,000-plus army and police forces and targeting mid-2008 as the time they would take over the security “lead” in all 18 Iraqi provinces.

Gen. Casey did not say specifically the takeover would lead to U.S. troops coming home. But Army Gen. John Abizaid, the regional commander, told Congress last month that the idea is for a gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces. And, instead of 18 months, said he thought the handoff could be achieved in late 2007.

A defense source told The Washington Times this week that the Joint Chiefs of Staff oppose a pullout now and a date-certain timeline for withdrawals.

“Under the current circumstances, I would not recommend troop withdrawals,” Gen. Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

A second defense source said some Democratic Iraq Study Group members wanted specific timelines and numbers, but Republicans did not want to go against the president. To gain a 10-0 vote, the group reached a compromise for staged withdrawal if conditions are met.

Meanwhile, Gen. Mixon explained how Gen. Casey’s plan is working. Gen. Mixon said that within four months, he will turn over lead security duties to four Iraqi army divisions in the six provinces under his control. That shift, he said, should result in fewer American soldiers in Iraq next summer.

“There will be decisions made, I’m sure above my level, where we may see a reduction in the numbers of forces that are on the ground,” Gen. Mixon said, adding there would be an increase in U.S. trainers.

As a comparison, he said in May only half of 40 Iraqi battalions could conduct counterinsurgency missions with little support from Americans. Today, the number is 35.

Gen. Mixon did not dodge the poor security situation. He singled out Diyala province as the worst, saying it is infested with al Qaeda terrorists, criminals and Sunni and Shi’ite gangs that take turns killing each other and civilians.

“This has locked Diyala into a cycle of sectarian violence,” he said.

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