Officers question Iraq policy

Some say deadline could spur Baghdad to needed security, political reforms

October 31, 2006|By Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus | Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Growing numbers of U.S. military officers have begun to privately question the conventional wisdom that has guided American strategy in Iraq for more than three years - that setting a hard deadline for troop reductions would strengthen the insurgency and undermine the effort to create a stable state.

The Iraqi government's failure to take measures to reduce sectarian tensions has led the U.S. officers to conclude that Iraqis will not start making difficult decisions until they are pushed. Therefore, the advantages of setting a hard deadline, the officers say, might outweigh the disadvantages.

For months, the Bush administration has been politely prodding the Iraqis on political and security reforms such as constitutional changes, the sharing of oil revenue and a crackdown on Shiite militias. The discussions have yielded little, prompting experts to question whether the Iraqis will ever compromise if there is no penalty for not making hard choices.

During the past week, Bush administration officials have spoken about possible timetables for progress in Iraq, but they softened their suggestions after talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Although top Bush administration officials are steering clear of discussing the timing of troop withdrawals, the officers' comments coincide with public statements by prominent Republicans who have begun talking about the need to establish a date that the United States will begin to reduce its force in Iraq, whether or not the Baghdad government takes steps toward political compromise.

President Bush and other administration officials have argued that telegraphing troop drawdowns would hand a road map to insurgents. They say that once the United States sets a withdrawal date, insurgents would know how long they must hang on before American troops are gone. Opponents of timetables also fear that small drawdowns would unleash a public demand for faster and more drastic withdrawals, allowing violence to grow worse and eroding any political gains in Iraq.

Until recently, military officers generally have agreed with the civilian leadership that a hard deadline would strengthen insurgent and militia groups vying for power. But the failure of the Iraqi government to move forward on key political and security measures has left U.S. military leaders frustrated.

"The upside is that deadlines could help ensure that the Iraqi leaders recognize the imperative of coming to grips with the tough decisions they've got to make for there to be progress in the political arena," said a senior Army officer who has served in Iraq.

Yesterday, the U.S. military's death toll for this month climbed past 100, a grim milestone. The Associated Press reported that a member of the 89th Military Police Brigade was killed yesterday in east Baghdad, and a Marine died in fighting in Anbar province the day before, raising to 101 the number of U.S. service members killed in a bloody October, the fourth- deadliest month of the war. At least 2,814 American soldiers have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an AP count.

Although military leaders remain wary of the consequences of imposing deadlines, officers increasingly say that doing so is starting to look more attractive. The shift in opinion is a sign that gridlock in the Iraqi government is seen as a greater threat to achieving stability in Iraq than the insurgency itself.

Kurt M. Campbell, a former Pentagon official and co-author of a book on national security policy, said he has heard more officers begin to call for setting hard deadlines for the Iraqis. One reason is a realization that the indefinite presence of U.S. forces enables the Shiite-dominated government to avoid making compromises with its rivals.

"There is a new belief that the biggest problem that we face is that our forces are the sand in the gears creating problems," Campbell said. "We are making things worse by giving the Iraqis a false sense of security at the governing level."

John Batiste, a retired Army major general who commanded a division in Iraq and has been critical of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said that setting a date for a drawdown of combat brigades must be considered. But in advance of the deadline, Batiste said, the United States must step up its effort to advise and train the Iraqi military and police.

"Holding the Iraqi government accountable is important, and that has everything to do with setting expectations and timelines," Batiste said. "It also has everything to do with doing all we can to ensure they are capable of completing the task they are trying to do."

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