Plans to trim U.S. forces in Iraq reflect administration concerns

August 06, 2005|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Plans to reduce American forces in Iraq next year reflect the Bush administration's growing concerns about the war: worries being driven as much by U.S. domestic concerns - an overstretched military, recruiting woes, casualties and costs - as the security situation in the war-torn country, according to senior military and government officials.

One Army officer, familiar with the views of senior leaders, said there is a "huge shift in thinking" that the insurgency cannot be defeated by military means alone, and that the Americans must show greater patience in working with the new government to shore up the political and economic framework in the country.

American ground commanders in Iraq aim to reduce the 138,000 U.S. troops by about 20,000 by next spring, followed by a continued drawdown of tens of thousands more troops into late next year.

A senior military official, who requested anonymity, said "a whole lot of things" are motivating the troop reduction, and he listed major concerns facing the administration and Pentagon leaders - the rising death toll, including 22 Marines killed this week, most from the same Ohio-based reserve unit; a recruiting slump that means the Army will miss its yearly goal by nearly 10,000 soldiers; the $5 billion-per-month war bill; and polls showing that Americans - who will be casting votes in next year's midterm elections - are increasingly giving President Bush poor marks on his handling of the war. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll this week found a 38 percent approval rating for Bush's handling of the war, the lowest ever.

Feeling the heat

A senior American official in Iraq concurred that political heat was creating significant motivation to reduce troops. "It's the U.S. ... I think there's a lot of public pressure" to bring down the number of U.S. forces, said the official, who requested anonymity.

The military official said there is also growing concern among military leaders that more than two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, the Americans are being viewed as occupiers by Iraqi citizens.

"There's a recognition you are overstaying your welcome," the official said, adding that a large U.S. presence makes troops a continual target and is "counterproductive" to an independent Iraq. Beginning to withdraw the troops should blunt the charges of American colonialism. At the same time, the expected U.S. downsizing will spur both Iraqi political and military leaders to assume more of a leadership role in their security, the official said.

As long as the Americans are leading the anti-insurgent effort, it delays the day when the Iraqi Security Forces, now about 175,000 members with varying degrees of competence, will take the lead.

"How long do you leave the training wheels on?" asked the official.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Barry Venable, disputed contentions that domestic issues are playing a large role in the troop-level discussions.

"The Iraqis are achieving something," he said. "They're moving forward." Decisions on reducing American forces are reached through "the lens of continued progress," he said.

Gen. George W. Casey, the top commander in Iraq, said last week that he expected "fairly substantial reductions" in U.S. forces next year, after Iraqi elections in December. Casey's ground commander told reporters earlier that about four or five brigades, as many as 20,000 soldiers, could be leaving by March. A British Ministry of Defense memo leaked last month said Americans hope to reduce their forces to 40,000 by the end of next year, an estimate that jibes with the figures of U.S. officials.

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari proposed this week a detailed plan to have Iraqi forces take over security in the country as soon as possible. Still, the official said, some Iraqi leaders are wary of any sizable reduction of American troops before their own forces are ready.

`Sovereign nation'

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld touched on some of these themes this week during a speech in Los Angeles. Rumsfeld said there is a "tension" between too many U.S. troops in Iraq - with resulting allegations that they are occupiers - and too few Iraqi soldiers, which could impede efforts to provide adequate security.

"We are training the Iraqi security forces as fast as they can be trained. We are passing off pieces of real estate to the Iraqis as fast as they are capable of taking it over," Rumsfeld said, before turning to the country's planned constitution and elections. "Success will only occur if there's progress on the political front so that the Iraqi people see that, in fact, it is their country. It is a sovereign nation. They are in control of it."

Bush and Rumsfeld have brushed aside calls in Congress, mostly from Democrats but including some Republicans, for a timetable to draw down American troops.

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