Powell Sees U.S. Troop Pullout in June
Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that, barring any snags, the last American troops would leave the Persian Gulf region in 2 to 2 1/2 months, which would put their final departure in middle to late June.
Speaking to representatives of major wire services and newspapers, Powell said it would be more than a month before the troop level is reduced to the point that President Bush will have to decide if he wants to remove all U.S. troops or leave a small residual force.
The President also will have the option of ordering continued flights of U.S. aircraft over Iraq, even after a permanent cease-fire takes effect, Powell added.
He estimated that up to 100,000 U.S. troops are still in southern Iraq five weeks after the end of the Gulf War. A small number of other allied troops remain, including French, he added.
Powell said that while he abhors the attacks on the Kurdish and Shiite populations of Iraq, neither the United States nor any coalition partner has any enthusiasm for getting into “what essentially is an internal Iraqi problem.”
“Nobody likes to watch killing of any kind, but I am not uncomfortable with the decisions that have been made by the President,” he said.
Powell said it could be “late summer when I can sit before you and say that it is all over.”
If Bush decides to continue U.S. air patrols over Iraq, “we have the ability to maintain that for an indefinite period” to make sure Iraq complies with a cease-fire resolution passed Wednesday by the U.N. Security Council, Powell said.
“I think it would be in Iraq’s best interests to accept as quickly as possible,” he said of the U.N. resolution, which sets stringent demands on war-shattered Iraq to make permanent a current halt in hostilities.
Powell said that a U.N. peacekeeping force would be able to move in within a matter of weeks, paving the way for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Meanwhile, a Red Cross official said Thursday that his organization can play only a limited role in dealing with the thousands of refugees who have sought shelter in the occupied zone of southern Iraq once American troops leave.
The Iraqis, including hundreds of families fleeing civil warfare and alleged government atrocities, cannot be classified as refugees because they remain inside the borders of their homeland.
Many say they fear reprisals from the Hussein government because they have accepted food and medicine from American troops. But, under international law, they will be returned to the authority of Baghdad once the Americans withdraw, said Nicolas Sommer, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In fact, the guidelines under which the ICRC works never provided for the kind of situation that exists in U.S.-occupied Iraq, Sommer said in a telephone interview from headquarters in Geneva.
When coalition forces leave southern Iraq, the Red Cross will attempt to provide the same limited services it does elsewhere in Iraq, including water and medicine, Sommer said.
Forty Red Cross employees are in Iraq, including a group that hopes in the next couple of days to reach parts of northern Iraq where government troops have squashed a Kurdish uprising. Twenty other employees are working in Kuwait.
“We don’t make up the rules as we go along,” Sommer said. “The Geneva Conventions don’t see a situation where a large number of people in occupied territory might not want to go back under the central government. It’s usually the other way around,” he said.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.