- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

Is the White House being slowly but inexorably nudged toward a long-term withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in Iraq’s war zones next year?

It would seem so, though perhaps “withdrawal” is not exactly the word to describe the direction in which U.S. military deployment may be headed. A fundamental change in its mission might be a better way to put it, shifting more toward military training, a larger Iraqi arms buildup and U.S. backup when needed, and necessary logistical support — a mission in keeping with President Bush’s vow that Iraq’s democratically elected government survives and the terrorists are engaged and ultimately defeated.

Clearly, public support for a dramatic change in war strategy has been building up to a critical mass that has put the administration in a weakened, defensive position about what to do next.

The voters have put the Democrats in charge of Congress in the hope of changing policy, largely because of their disapproval of how the war is conducted. If nothing is done to change course, American impatience with the war will only increase.

At the same time, Mr. Bush and his administration clearly have been losing confidence and patience in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s abilities to halt rapid deterioration in his country and government. Mr. Bush’s thinly veiled impatience was made clear last week about what he wanted to hear from Mr. al-Maliki: “My questions to him will be: What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with sectarian violence?”

The next shoe to drop will be the Iraq Study Group, the congressionally mandated, bipartisan commission ordered to come up with a viable plan in Iraq. The panel’s report will call this week for a gradual, phased withdrawal or redeployment of at least some of our forces next year, though without setting a timetable.

If those reports prove true, they only add further fuel to the movement for changing strategies long term and reducing the ground combat forces that are clearly insufficient to stabilize a nation of 25 million people beset by a growing insurgency bent on wreaking chaos, terror and death.

More to the point, no one at this juncture in the administration has been able to come up with a viable way to thwart the guerrilla war aimed at the civilian population, and our own forces. The White House has made clear it is looking for answers and hopes some of them may be found in the commission’s report due out Wednesday.

How the administration plans to respond to the report is unclear at this point, though Mr. Bush has begun sending signals that he is open to a change of strategy — as long as it keeps America’s promise to defend Iraqi freedom and sovereignty paid for with American lives. “We will continue to be flexible, and we’ll make the changes necessary to succeed,” he said last week on his way to the NATO summit meeting.

“But there’s one thing I’m not going to do: I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.”

But is this war winnable on the battlefield by American military forces? It is winnable if we were talking about an opposition army seeking to gain or hold territory. But in Iraq, there is no battlefield in the traditional military sense and no single army. We face unseen terrorists planting bombs in marketplaces, mosques and roads, and sectarian violence where Sunnis and Shi’ites seek revenge, only to retreat into the civilian populations of villages and towns to plot their next attacks.

Departing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has repeatedly said only the Iraqis can win this war. That points to but one long-term solution to the impasse: a dramatic change in the mission from one of fighting door to door, village to village, to one in which we recruit and train a much larger Iraqis army than has heretofore been imagined — turning it into an effective fighting force capable of defending its country and its government.

This does not mean a wholesale withdrawal anytime soon, but it would put the al-Maliki government on notice that the burden of the war will now fall increasingly on Iraqi shoulders. We will give the Iraqis what they need to succeed, but in the end they will be the ones fighting for their survival.

We did it in South Korea. We did it in Afghanistan to drive the Soviets out of that country. We did it in Nicaragua to defeat the Marxist Sandinista guerrillas.

Such a mission shift, phased in over the coming year, would result in the gradual redeployment of our soldiers, as more Iraqis soldiers are put into action, while remaining true to our solemn promise to stick by them for as long as it takes.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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