Signs of change in stance on Iraq war

White House seems to be laying groundwork for withdrawal


WASHINGTON -- Even as debate over the Iraq war continues to rage, signs are emerging of a convergence of opinion on how the Bush administration might begin to get out of the conflict.

In a departure from past statements, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that the training of Iraqi troops has advanced so far that the current number of U.S. troops probably will not be needed for much longer.

President Bush will give a major speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in which aides say he is expected to proclaim the improved readiness of Iraqi troops, which he has identified as the key condition for withdrawing U.S. forces.

The administration's pivot on the issue comes at a time when the White House needs to relieve enormous political pressure by war opponents, including liberals, moderates and old-line conservatives who are uneasy with the costly and uncertain nation-building effort.

It also follows agreement this week among Iraqi politicians from all three major ethnic and religious groups that the number of U.S. troops ought to decrease. Meeting in Cairo, Egypt, the Iraqis called for a U.S. withdrawal and recognized Iraqis' "legitimate right of resistance" to foreign occupation. In private conversations, Iraqi officials discussed a possible two-year withdrawal period, analysts said.

The developments seemed to lay the groundwork for potentially large withdrawals in 2006 and 2007, consistent with scenarios outlined by Pentagon planners. The approach also tracks the thinking of some centrist Democrats such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Some analysts say the emerging consensus might have less to do with conditions in Iraq than with the long-term strain of the deployment on the U.S. military. And major questions over the readiness of Iraq's fledgling security forces pose risks for any strategy that calls for an accelerated American troop withdrawal.

As recently as late September, senior U.S. military commanders told a congressional hearing that just one Iraqi battalion, about 700 soldiers, was considered capable of conducting combat operations fully independent of any U.S. support. Administration officials now dismiss that measure of military readiness, saying more Iraqi units are able to perform advanced operations each day.

A former top Pentagon official who served during Bush's first term said he believes there is a "growing consensus" for a withdrawal of about 40,000 troops before next year's U.S. elections. That would be followed by further substantial withdrawals in 2007 if it becomes clear that the Iraqi forces can contain the insurgency.

"You've got the convergence of domestic pressures, Iraqi pressures and Pentagon [withdrawal] plans that have been in the works for a while," said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "This is serious."

A senior U.S. official said that in signaling hopes for a large drawdown next year, Rice was only "stating the obvious" this week.

"It looks like things are headed in the right direction to enable that to happen in 2006," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But he added that those hopes could be derailed if there are setbacks. Among the key markers ahead are Dec. 15 elections for a permanent Iraqi government. Officials have said violence probably will increase before the elections. More than 100 U.S. troops have died in the month since the death toll reached 2,000.

U.S. officials hope that by the end of 2007, the U.S. force remaining in Iraq would be small enough not to offend Iraqi sensibilities, yet large enough to help Iraq's military with reconnaissance, intelligence-gathering and air support.

Such an approach might be more acceptable to Republican candidates who are worried about running in midterm elections next year amid plummeting support for the war, and perhaps also to GOP presidential candidates looking to run in 2008.

Bush's handling of the war has the support of about 35 percent of the public, according to the latest Gallup poll; other surveys have showed recently that 40 percent of Americans believe the president is honest and trustworthy.

In recent months, Bush has rebuffed questions about a schedule for withdrawal, saying that providing a specific timetable would hearten insurgents and encourage them to wait out the Americans.

Paul Richter and Tyler Marshall write for the Los Angeles Times.

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