Question of how to leave Iraq looms

4-year anniversary

March 20, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Arguments for and against an American military withdrawal from Iraq will run deep and loud this week as Congress takes up the issue of when and how U.S. troops should be brought home. But there has been virtually no consideration of the costs and risks of a withdrawal, whether it comes soon under congressional deadline or later as a tactical military judgment.

Military officers and logistics experts, many speaking privately because of the political sensitivity of the subject, said that chaos, confusion and casualties could mark the withdrawal of American troops, depending on how long the military has to plan for withdrawal and on the pace and scale of fighting in Iraq.

Under the best circumstances, lines of roughly 1,000 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, along with 20,000 Humvees and tens of thousands of trucks would snake south toward Kuwait, with helicopter gunships overhead and tanks guarding key intersections, a logistical nightmare that would last six months or longer.

An abrupt retreat could trigger widespread looting, especially of abandoned American military facilities and equipment, as U.S. troops depart. Similar fates have befallen abandoned British bases in southern Iraq.

A U.S. withdrawal could also alarm those Iraqis closely identified with the American war effort, sparking desperate efforts to get out. Specialists who have studied the problem say streams of refugees could clog the roads, as troops fight their way out through swarms of insurgents, some specialists said.

Either way, once a withdrawal is announced and under way, it could be difficult for commanders to maintain morale and fighting spirit in their troops - both American and Iraqi.

"Once you start down this road, whether you are going to be able to set the pace of events with a rheostat strikes me as a pretty dicey proposition," said Thomas Donnelly, a military specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, a policy think-tank in Washington. "Naturally, it would induce great caution among commanders."

Once a pull-out is apparent, he added, "Who is going to take the risk of living in a police station in a Baghdad neighborhood?"

"At the end of the day, what we do will be shaped by the enemy, as in all wars," said retired army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, a senior military strategist and author.

The measure at issue on Capitol Hill this week is a $124 billion package of legislation that would continue funding for the war for six months, but mandate a troop withdrawal beginning as early as December if certain benchmarks aren't met. The legislation demands that a troop withdrawal be completed by August 2008.

Both foes and advocates of a quick withdrawal have described this complex operation in simple terms, as Bush did yesterday when he said it would be "tempting" to "pack up and go home." Opponents of the war have campaigned on the slogan, "Bring the Troops Home Now."

"This legislation for the first time sets a date for the responsible redeployment of American troops from Iraq," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of southern Maryland said yesterday. "It is past time - way past time - for a new direction in Iraq," he said.

Bush, who said he had talked early yesterday with Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, as well as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, acknowledged that "prevailing in Iraq is not going to be easy." But Bush insisted that the war, which over four years has killed 3,218 American troops and wounded 23,417, "can be won. It will be won if we have the courage and resolve to see it through."

The debate over an American withdrawal, which has seesawed through Congress without resolution for months, rides public opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans oppose keeping U.S. troops in Iraq.

Some politicians have argued for a complete pull-out. Others, including Democratic presidential contenders Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barrack Obama and GOP Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, argue for a "phased withdrawal" that would pull out combat brigades first, leaving in place the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel serving with Iraqi units as trainers and advisers, and supporting the Iraqi army with logistics, air cover, intelligence and medical treatment.

"I think the goal of withdrawing [all American] combat troops by the end of 2008 is very realistic and attainable," Sununu told the New Hampshire Union-Leader in a story published Sunday. "I think it would be foolish for anyone to predict a day when there would be zero" American troops in Iraq, the Union-Leader quoted him as saying in a phone interview from Baghdad.

Other proposals call for one or more U.S. combat brigades to be staged "over the horizon" in remote parts of Iraq or even across the border in Kuwait as "quick reaction forces."

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