Despite President Bush’s effort to halt such talk, top Iraqi and American officials continue to suggest that U.S. and British troops in Iraq could begin substantial withdrawals as soon as next year.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said on a British TV program over the weekend that Iraqi forces might be ready to replace British troops by the end of next year. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, have also predicted recently that a substantial troop reduction could begin in 2006.
As U.S. public support for the war has declined in recent months, Democrats have become bolder in criticizing the war, and some Republicans are worried that discontent about the conflict could cost the GOP congressional seats next year.
On Monday, the Senate began debate on measures that would, for the first time, ask Bush to set limits for keeping troops in Iraq, Bloomberg News reported.
One measure is sponsored by Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and fellow Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, and another is backed by Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Carl Levin of Michigan. Both would require the White House to make periodic reports to lawmakers on the military situation in Iraq. Votes could come today.
Bush has repeatedly refused to offer any timetable for a withdrawal, saying that to do so would strengthen the hand of insurgents. But analysts say there is growing political pressure in all three countries to reduce the presence of foreign forces 2 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion.
In September, an 18-member committee of Iraq’s National Assembly termed such troops “occupation forces” and called for a timetable for their withdrawal.
In Talabani’s comments on British TV, he said: “We don’t want British forces forever in Iraq. Within a year, I think at the end of 2006, Iraqi troops will be ready to replace British troops in the south.” But Talabani revised his prediction Monday during a trip to Vienna, saying that British troops might be able to begin a phase-out by 2007.
In Britain, where the war remains unpopular, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday that it was “entirely reasonable to talk about the possibility of withdrawal of troops next year” as long as “the job is done.”
Khalilzad made his prediction Oct. 25 on PBS’ “Newshour,” saying, “We are on the right track to start significant reductions in the coming year.”
Despite such comments, some Iraqi officials have joined the Bush administration in warning that a premature troop reduction could set the stage for war among Iraq’s three principal ethnic and sectarian groups, further destabilizing the region.
Wayne E. White, former deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said Monday that he thought political factors in the U.S. and pressure on its military eventually would make debate about withdrawal “moot.”
“I don’t think the United States or Britain can sustain a deployment of this size over many more years,” said White, an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.
More than 140,000 U.S. and 8,000 British troops are in Iraq.
White said the U.S. should set a deadline for the full withdrawal of troops within three years. That approach, he said, would put pressure on the Iraqi government to fully prepare its forces while showing that, contrary to a widely held belief in Iraq, America does not intend to stay indefinitely so it can maintain military bases and control Iraq’s oil.
U.S. and Iraqi defense officials say the training of Iraqi security forces is moving ahead.
Iraqi Defense Ministry analyst Mohammed Askari said Iraqi forces -- if provided equipment such as helicopters, tanks and artillery -- could protect the country from internal threats within six months. But he added: “Maybe we need American troops for the next few years to protect us from external invasions, because there are various countries with ill intentions against Iraq.”
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said the Iraqis had about 110,000 trained police officers. They also have 10 divisions of soldiers in uniform (a division may have as many as 15,000 troops). But only one division is trained and equipped to be battle-ready.
Richter reported from Washington and Daniszewski from Baghdad.