In Iraq, No Clear Finish Line

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

The Bush administration has sent seemingly conflicting signals in recent days over the duration of the U.S. deployment to Iraq, openly discussing contingency plans to withdraw as many as 30,000 of 138,000 troops by spring, then cautioning against expectations of any early pullout. Finally yesterday, President Bush dismissed talk of a drawdown as just "speculation and rumors" and warned against "withdrawing before the mission is complete."

If the public was left confused, it may be no more unsure than the administration itself, as some government officials involved in Iraq policy privately acknowledge.

The shifting scenarios reflect the uncertain nature of the mission and the ambiguity of what would constitute its successful completion. For all the clarity of Bush's vow to stay not one day longer than needed, the muddled reality is that no one can say exactly when that will be.

The events of the past week have brought home once again the difficulties confronting the president as he prosecutes what polls suggest is an increasingly unpopular war. With surging violence claiming more U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq and the angry mother of a dead soldier camping out near his ranch in Texas, Bush plainly cannot count on indefinite public patience.

Administration officials have all but given up any hope of militarily defeating the insurgents with U.S. forces, instead aiming only to train and equip enough Iraqi security forces to take over the fight themselves. At the same time, they believe that the mission depends on building a new political infrastructure, a project facing its most decisive test in the next three days as deeply divided Iraqis struggle to draft a constitution by a Monday deadline.

In the face of all that, Bush is trying to buy time. After meeting with his national security team at his ranch near Crawford, Tex., yesterday, Bush again beseeched the public to stick with his strategy despite continuing mayhem on the ground, exemplified most recently by the deaths of 16 Marines from the same Ohio-based unit in the past two weeks. Overall, nearly 1,850 U.S. troops have died.

"The mission in Iraq is tough because the enemy understands the stakes," Bush said, alongside Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "A free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will deliver a serious blow to their hateful ideology. . . . The recent violence in Iraq is a grim reminder of the brutal enemies we face in the war on terror."

Much of the public appears unconvinced. Just 38 percent of Americans in an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week approved of Bush's handling of the war, the lowest point yet in that survey. More than half of those interviewed in a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll said they now believe that it was a mistake to send U.S. troops into Iraq and that the war has made the United States less safe from terrorism; 56 percent supported withdrawing some or all troops now.

That disenchantment is one reason, some officials privately acknowledge, that the military has begun talking about a potential timetable for partial withdrawal -- to provide a sense of progress and reassure Americans that the deployment is not endless.

"They want to start withdrawing because they can feel the heat here in the United States," said Larry Diamond, a onetime U.S. adviser in Iraq who has since written "Squandered Victory," a scathing appraisal of the postwar occupation. "They know the tolerance for American casualties and this ongoing bloodshed is not going to go on forever."

Pentagon plans call for increasing the 17-brigade U.S. troop presence this fall by a brigade or two, or about 10,000 troops, before bringing it down to about 15 brigades next spring and possibly to about 12 brigades by the end of 2006, according to officers familiar with the planning. The near-term increase would cover the constitutional referendum scheduled for Oct. 15 and national elections set for Dec. 15, a period in which U.S. military authorities expect violence to intensify, much as it did during the run-up to January's interim elections.

Top Pentagon officials have made no secret in recent weeks of their eagerness to begin withdrawing some troops to ease the strain of lengthy deployments. At the same time, military commanders have cautioned against expecting that Iraq's new army and police forces will develop quickly enough to operate on their own within another year or two.

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