Early Pullout Unlikely In Iraq

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 11, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 10 -- Iraq's leaders and military will be unable to lead the fight against insurgents until next summer at the earliest, a top U.S. military official said Wednesday, trying to temper any hopes that a full-scale American troop withdrawal was imminent as Iraq moves toward elections scheduled for December.

Both Americans and Iraqis need "to start thinking about and talking about what it's really going to be like in Iraq after elections," said the military official, who spoke in an interview on the condition he not be named. "I think the important point is there's not going to be a fundamental change."

The official stressed that it was "important to calibrate expectations post-elections. I've been saying to folks: You're still going to have an insurgency, you're still going to have a dilapidated infrastructure, you're still going to have decades of developmental problems both on the economic and the political side."

U.S. military officials in Iraq said last month that it might be possible to withdraw 20,000 to 30,000 of the 138,000 American troops by next spring if Iraqi civilian leaders managed to meet deadlines for drafting a new constitution and holding elections.

On Wednesday, the military official said a significant spring withdrawal was "still possible." But while primary military responsibility for some parts of Iraq could likely be handed over even before the elections, the official said, U.S. forces would have to play a lead role in fighting the insurgency for at least a year. Even if a new government is elected on time in December, "the earliest they're going to be capable of running a counterinsurgency campaign is . . . next summer," the official said.

The warnings came on a day when the U.S. military reported five service members killed in action. In addition, a U.S. citizen in Iraq was kidnapped and released, a U.S. official confirmed, and a car bomb in Baghdad killed four Iraqi civilians and three policemen.

Meeting in Baghdad, leaders of Iraq's factions reported no immediate progress on the key issues-- such as how much autonomy regions should have -- blocking agreement on a new constitution, with the deadline for the draft's approval just five days away.

"The constitution should be written in time. It is in our benefit to have one word to agree on," urged Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, whose government faces possible dissolution under current accords if drafters miss the Monday deadline.

The existing timeline calls for a national vote on the constitution on Oct. 15, to be followed by elections for a full-term government on Dec. 15. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed Iraqis again this week to finish the draft constitution on time, after citing rising U.S. combat fatalities.

In Baghdad, the U.S. military official sought to tamp down any hopes that political progress would immediately improve security.

The Iraqi government's opponents "certainly are not going to pack up and go away, there's no doubt about it," he said. Instead, he suggested, insurgent attacks are likely to surge as Iraq's new constitution and government take shape.

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," the official said. "I think they're going to pull out all the stops."

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