- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

ISTANBUL — In the troubled region surrounding Iraq, a frequent question posed to the top U.S. military officer visiting the area was not when his troops will pull out of Iraq, but how long they will stay.

From the glittery king’s palace in Saudi Arabia to the devastated slopes of the Pakistani mountainside and a staid Turkish symposium, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought last week to ease concerns about whether opposition to the war at home could pressure U.S. forces to leave Iraq before it is stable.

“I think it’s fair to say that in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, there is a clear desire for the U.S. to stay with it until the job is done — which, coincidentally, is how we look at it,” Gen. Pace said Sunday as he left Istanbul for Washington.

On his first diplomatic-oriented trip since the fall, Gen. Pace traveled to three countries whose leaders are worried about the U.S. commitment to the Iraq war and the global war on terror. Failure to secure Iraq could inspire insurgencies in their countries and instability in the region, where terrorism is a familiar threat.

Their fears are stoked by the American public’s growing impatience with a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops and the persistent calls from members of Congress for an exit strategy.

“I told them that from the U.S. military’s viewpoint, we would stay with the mission until we got the job done,” Gen. Pace said.

Those interests also at times conflict with strong anti-American sentiment in these Muslim countries, including Pakistan, where thousands protested the war during a recent visit by President Bush. Protesters were not evident during Gen. Pace’s visit, but he often faced blunt questions about U.S. Middle East policies and progress in Iraq from both officials and the local press.

Gen. Pace said people in the countries wanted to know what the United States’ plans are for Iraq and Afghanistan, for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and for aiding the fight against guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq and Turkey.

Turks worry that if U.S. troops leave Iraq too soon, the country could crumble and allow Kurdish rebels in the north to create an independent state along the Turkish border.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are concerned that sectarian violence in Iraq will expand into Saudi Arabia, and that a weakened Iraq will allow Iran to gain a foothold there, said Rachel Bronson, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In Pakistan, there are ongoing efforts to ferret out terrorists traveling back and forth across the mountainous Afghan border, where some think Osama bin Laden may be hiding and directing his al Qaeda network.

“These are three countries where it is easy to have misunderstandings just because of cultural differences … language and interpretations of what is being said,” Gen. Pace said. “So, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to go face to face with my counterparts.”

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