Iraq danger, challenge persists

Obama to face task of careful withdrawal while maintaining cease-fire, security

Election 2008

November 06, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,david.wood@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - White-hot public anger over the war in Iraq, coming to a boil 18 months ago, initially helped propel Barack Obama toward the White House.

But as much of the ugly violence and heavy casualties have faded, so have many of the demands to "Bring the Troops Home Now!"

Now what?

According to Obama's own plans, and the assessments of senior officers and others, the White House will be engaged in a long process of carefully sequenced troop withdrawals, delicate management to keep today's cease-fires in Iraq in place, and maintaining some residual U.S. security presence at least through the next four years.

In other words, a continuing headache.

No matter that Iraq has virtually disappeared as a domestic political issue, as evident from exit polls surveys this week that indicated that only one in ten voters chose on the basis of Iraq and six in 10 acted on economic issues.

Iraq will occupy much of Obama's first presidential term. As he declared this summer, ending the Iraq war "is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Afghanistan was already pressing on Obama yesterday, as a U.S. airstrike reportedly killed 37 people at a wedding party and Afghan President Hamid Karzai called Obama to "demand" an end to civilian casualties. A U.S. military spokesman said the incident is under investigation.

Obama's attention to Iraq, amid a torrent of other challenges, is also driven by the war's cost: about $154 billion a year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Obama has said he wants to use that money at home.

But Iraq is still a dangerous place. The murderous currents of sectarian slaughter and ethnic cleansing have gone underground but are still potent. Iraq "remains a tinderbox," said Steven Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Currently, 152,000 U.S. troops serve in Iraq, including about 65,000 ground combat troops. If all goes well, by this summer they would be withdrawn from forward posts back inside large bases outside Iraq's cities.

According to Obama's plan, endorsed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, all U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn by the summer of 2010 - although Obama has said he reserves the right to make "tactical adjustments" to that schedule. He has also said he will remain flexible based on the advice of U.S. commanders on the ground.

All U.S. forces, including combat and support troops, are to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011, according to a draft U.S.-Iraq agreement that remains unfinished because of disagreements over the legal status of American troops and other issues, U.S. officials said. According to the draft, the Iraqi government may ask that U.S. forces stay in Iraq beyond 2011.

This agreement must be concluded before legal authorization for U.S. troops, in the form of a U.N. Security Council resolution, expires Dec. 31. If no agreement is reached before then, U.S. officials have said, American troops will have to "cease operations."

It was not clear whether Obama or his aides would take part in final deliberations on the draft agreement in the next few weeks.

Beyond such deadlines, Obama has yet to announce whether the troops to be withdrawn would hunker down nearby - say, in Kuwait - in case of an emergency in Iraq, or be brought back to the United States for reassignment to Afghanistan. Nor has the president-elect said how many "noncombat" troops should be left in Iraq to help train Iraq's army and police and to provide intelligence, medical, logistics, artillery and close air support, and security troops to protect American advisers and trainers who stay.

The decline in violence in Iraq has been dramatic, even with the withdrawal this year of the five combat brigades that made up the "surge" of troops ordered by President Bush in January 2007. Fifteen brigades of ground combat troops remain in Iraq.

Until recently, for example, the so-called Triangle of Death, a mixed Shiite-Sunni region south of Baghdad, was so violent it was considered a no-go area for American forces. A year ago a U.S. brigade operating there lost 50 dead and 277 wounded. That unit's replacement, a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, has lost one dead and 22 wounded in 14 months.

The Iraqi army unit on duty there has grown from 3,700 soldiers to 12,000, and is operating on its own, according to Col. Dominic Caraccilo, the U.S. brigade commander.

"We try not to get involved" in combat operations, Caraccilo told reporters at a Pentagon briefing last week. "We lead from behind."

Out in western Iraq's Anbar Province, where Marines once fought vicious battles in Fallujah and Ramadi, "we are backing out," said Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who commands 25,000 Marines there.

With significant improvements in Iraqi army and police units, he said, "they very much have the fight. And unless something really strange happened that I almost can't conceive of, they've got it."

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