General Decries Call For Timetable in Iraq

Army Maj. Gen. William Webster, head of the 3rd Infantry Division, shown promoting a soldier earlier this year at a camp in Iraq.
Army Maj. Gen. William Webster, head of the 3rd Infantry Division, shown promoting a soldier earlier this year at a camp in Iraq. (By Faleh Kheiber -- Reuters)
By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 17, 2005

BAGHDAD, Nov. 16 -- A top American commander in Iraq on Wednesday denounced calls by some U.S. senators and others to set a deadline for a troop withdrawal, calling it "a recipe for disaster" for the 2 1/2 -year-old war.

"Setting a date would mean that the 221 soldiers I've lost this year, that their lives will have been lost in vain," said Army Maj. Gen. William Webster, whose 3rd Infantry Division is responsible for security in three-fourths of Iraq's capital. Making up the bulk of Task Force Baghdad, the 3rd Infantry patrols some of the most dangerous turf in Iraq, encountering massive bombs and suicide assaults in attacks that Webster said average 35 a day in the city

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday defeated by a 58 to 40 vote a Democratic proposal that would have required U.S. leaders to fix a rough date for pulling out the more than 140,000 American service members in Iraq.

Senate Republicans, however, joined Democrats in stepping up pressure on the White House to wind down the increasingly unpopular war, approving a measure that sets 2006 as a "period of significant transition creating conditions for the phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq."

Iraq's armed factions would likely take a cue from a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal to lie low, gathering their strength and laying plans for renewed conflict when the Americans leave, Webster said.

Representatives of several Iraqi insurgent groups -- not including Abu Musab Zarqawi's al Qaeda in Iraq -- and statements issued by those groups in recent weeks have suggested they would declare a truce in return for a U.S. deadline on withdrawal, among other conditions.

U.S. military commanders have repeatedly insisted that Americans should pull out in force only when Iraq's own security forces are capable of defending the government and country, among other benchmarks. President Bush has resisted demands for a timetable, despite his own falling popularity.

"Our troops are trying to get this accomplished," Webster told a small group of reporters. "They believe they're doing the right thing. The soldiers believe they're helping."

While the United States has an exit strategy from Iraq, Webster said he believed leaders had yet to fix a plan setting dates for phased withdrawals. "I think it's a recipe for disaster," he said of the demands for such deadlines. "Setting a date is a loser."

In western Iraq on Wednesday , a firefight with insurgents killed five Marines, the U.S. military said, unofficially bringing the number of American troops killed in combat since the war began to 2,080.

Addressing a reported statement by Iraq's Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, Webster said he believed it "a distinct possibility" that insurgents now were training in Iraq for attacks in other countries. Webster added he had not seen any evidence of Iraq being used as a training ground or of any large-scale training camps.

Webster said U.S. forces in Baghdad have detained 81 foreign fighters since he began his current tour in Iraq almost a year ago. The "overwhelming majority" came from Syria, he said. The second-largest category was those whose origin could not be determined, he said. Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt accounted for the next three largest groups, in that order, he said.

Many Iraqis insist that almost all suicide attacks are carried out by foreigners, although authorities say Iraqis carried out last week's deadly bombings in Jordan. The U.S. military has not tried to gauge how many of the bombers here are foreigners, he said.

"It's very hard for us to tell," he said. "In many cases we find pieces and parts, people trying to [determine] whether that's an Iraqi foot, or a Syrian hand."

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