The top U.S. commander for Iraq rejected yesterday proposals from Senate Democrats to immediately pull troops from Iraq or do it on a specific timetable starting in March.
“Our troops’ posture needs to stay where it is as we move to enhance the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces,” Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “and then we need to assess whether or not we can bring major combat units out of there.”
His response was, in effect, a dismissal of a proposal from incoming Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, for a phased withdrawal to begin in four months, and from Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, for an immediate pullout.
Gen. Abizaid said current troop levels, and an improving Iraqi security force of more than 300,000, are sufficient to eventually win.
“I believe that we can move forward,” he said.
But Democrats, and at least one Republican, expressed skepticism.
“It’s not encouraging to those of us who heard time after time that things are, quote, ‘progressing well,’ that we’re making progress, et cetera, because we’re hearing from many other sources that that’s not the case,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who won re-election as an independent, displayed how difficult it will be for Mr. Levin to get a majority of senators to agree to specific withdrawal dates.
“I agree with both of you that a congressional mandate to begin a withdrawal from Iraq in a time certain would be a disaster for the Iraqis and, more directly, for the U.S.,” he said.
Gen. Michael V. Hayden, CIA director, later provided a sober picture of Iraq.
“Even if the central government gains broader support from Iraq’s communities, implementing the reforms needed to improve life for all Iraqis will be extremely difficult,” he said. “Iraq’s endemic violence is eating away at the state’s ability to govern. The security forces are plagued by sectarianism and severe maintenance and logistics problems.”
The hearing also found the Bush administration signaling a postelection change in policy toward Iran, which the U.S. says is fueling the Shi’ite insurgency and deaths squads in Iraq. Coupled with Sunni terrorists, the groups have spun Baghdad into waves of violent sectarian killings that threaten to throw the country into a civil war. October was one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops, and more than 2,800 have been killed in the war.
David Satterfield, the top adviser on Iraq to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said the United States is ready to talk directly with Iran about achieving peace in Iraq. Mr. Satterfield did not open the door to the other problem neighbor, Syria.
Yesterday’s hearing came at another pivotal time for the 3-year-old war. Absent at the witness table was outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who resigned under pressure on an Election Day that saw Democrats retake Congress largely on frustration with the Iraq war. Defense Secretary-designate Robert M. Gates is to undergo confirmation hearings before the committee next month.
Democrats take control of Congress in January and are expected to debate legislation that would speed a troop exodus. Republicans and the White House, so far, oppose such measures. All Washington eyes are on the Iraq Study Group, a congressionally created panel of former government officials. It is set next month to lay out a list of options for winning in Iraq.
Two widely speculated ideas are a timetable for troop withdrawal and direct talks with Syria and Iran, both U.S.-designated terror states. Gen. Abizaid seemed to rule out the first option; Mr. Satterfield accepted part of the second.
Gen. Abizaid confirmed an Associated Press report that when he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, in Baghdad this week, he pressed him to begin ordering his forces to disarm the Mahdi’s Army, from which cells have spun off into death squads.
The Mahdi’s Army is led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a political ally of Mr. al-Maliki. Gen. Abizaid said Mr. al-Maliki has begun disarming the militia, and U.S. forces have raided suspected death squads in Sadr City, Sheik al-Sadr’s stronghold.
The general said Iraq must curtail violence in six months or risk losing any chance of a political settlement. He acknowledged that there are not enough U.S. forces in Iraq to control the entire Anbar province, a sprawling Sunni region west of Baghdad that has become a base for al Qaeda terrorists.
This remark brought a sharp rebuke from Mr. McCain. Although many Democrats want troops called home, and Republicans generally back the current 140,000, Mr. McCain advocates sending more forces.
“Wouldn’t it make sense to say it might be well to get both Baghdad and al Anbar province under control before we have another battle of Fallujah and lose many more lives?” Mr. McCain said.
Gen. Abizaid answered, “It’s easy for the Iraqis to rely upon us to do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future. They will win the insurgency, they will solve the sectarian violence problem, and they’ll do it with our help.”
Gen. Abizaid has recommended a temporary increase of U.S. trainers embedded with Iraqi units.