Conflicting messages

August 12, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Bush seems to be having trouble with the military line of command in Iraq.

Two weeks ago, the American military commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., volunteered that with elections approaching this fall on a new constitution, there might be "some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer" of 2006 if the training of Iraqi security forces "continues to go as it is going."

General Casey seemed to be conveying the idea that progress has been made when he said a reading of the insurgent forces showed that "the level they've been able to generate has not increased substantially" over the year before. Some progress.

But the Bush administration, or perhaps just the military command in Baghdad, apparently has had second thoughts about the notion of sending out any sort of sunny signal, even as public opinion mounts at home for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops.

On Wednesday, someone in Baghdad identified by The Washington Post only as "a top U.S. military official" played down the notion of an early pullout. The newspaper, by making his comments the lead story on the front page, indicated that the official was not some second lieutenant on routine patrol.

The thrust of the official's message was that it was not realistic to expect that the writing of the new constitution by Aug. 15, the referendum on it set for Oct. 15 and the Dec. 15 elections of a new government would change the military picture.

The unidentified official told the Post that U.S. and Iraqi principals had to "start thinking about and talking about what it's really going to be like in Iraq after elections. I think the important point is there's not going to be a fundamental change."

He said the insurgents "certainly are not going to pack up and go away, there's no doubt about it. ... If you're a terrorist or an insurgent, what I can say to myself is, if I can kill this process, I've got to do it this year. I think they're going to pull out all the stops."

In congressional testimony last month, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that only "a small number" of U.S.-trained Iraqis were then "taking on the insurgents and terrorists by themselves." Only one-third more, he reported, were ready to fight them with the help of coalition forces, and the rest were only "partially capable."

The backing and filling on the outlook for withdrawing U.S. troops cannot fail to convey an impression of an otherwise tightly disciplined administration tolerating freelancing in the military command on this issue. The latest comments by the anonymous top official clearly seek to combat it.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld repeatedly has balked at setting any timetable for even a partial withdrawal, focusing on pressuring Iraqi civilian officials drafting the constitution to resolve their internal differences and complete the work on time.

Another aspect of the confused message on a U.S. pullout is the open controversy about the training of Iraqi security forces. Last month, the Pentagon reported it had 171,000 Iraqis in training, about 32,000 more than the number of U.S. forces in the country.

But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continues to dispute the training figures. On a recent TV talk show, Mr. Biden, a frequent visitor to Iraq, said he believes only 3,000 Iraqis have been trained sufficiently to be dependable for security duty.

For openers, the administration needs to concentrate on something it previously has taken such pride in - getting everyone, including the military, singing from the same sheet music on Iraq. And why not by name?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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