By Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 1, 2006
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group plans to recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat units from Iraq by early 2008 while leaving behind troops to train, advise and support the Iraqis, setting the first goal for a major drawdown of U.S. forces, sources familiar with the proposal said yesterday.
The commission plan would shift the U.S. mission in Iraq to a secondary role as the fragile Baghdad government and its security forces take the lead in fighting a Sunni insurgency and trying to halt sectarian violence. As part of major changes in the U.S. presence, sources said, the plan recommends embedding U.S. soldiers directly in Iraqi security units starting as early as next month to improve leadership and effectiveness.
The call to pull out combat brigades by early 2008 would be more a conditional goal than a firm timetable, predicated on the assumption that circumstances on the ground would permit it, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the commission's report will not be released until next week. But panel members concluded that it is vital to set a target to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to do more to assume responsibility for the security of their country.
"It's really about transitioning from a combat to a support role, and basically making very clear that this is no longer an open-ended commitment and we're going to get this done whether the Iraqis like it or not," said one of the sources. "Everybody understands that we're at the end of the road here."
The choice of early 2008 as a goal could also, intentionally or not, change the nature of the debate over the war at the height of the U.S. presidential primary season. If the commission's plan is successful, the war might recede as an issue, as many strategists in both parties hope. But if U.S. commanders do not meet that goal, or if they do but violence only escalates, it may inflame the struggles for both parties' nominations.
Democrats, who captured control of both houses of Congress in last month's midterm elections, and some Republicans have pushed strongly for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. But President Bush has firmly resisted such demands, warning that it would amount to surrender and could destabilize Iraq even further.
At a news conference yesterday after a summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Amman, Jordan, Bush seemed to douse the idea of withdrawal in response to news reports about the Iraqi Study Group's recommendations. "This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it whatsoever," Bush said.
But aides later cautioned against interpreting that as opposition to any change in the U.S. troop posture. "That's not the case," said one senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "His position is he's not entering this process with defeat on his mind" for the sole purpose of getting out, the official said. Some options being discussed by the Iraqi Study Group and his own administration's internal policy review, the official said, are "things that he's very open to."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with CBS News, sounded more open to the concept of drawing down forces. "The whole goal here is to transfer responsibility to the Iraqis and to give them enough capability to take those responsibilities," she said. "Obviously, as those responsibilities are transferred, as the capability improves, then American forces will be less in evidence and less needed. That's a natural outcome."
Maliki, too, signaled that he would be receptive to such a transition in six months. "I can say that Iraqi forces will be ready, fully ready, to receive this command and to command its own forces. And I can tell you that, by next June, our forces will be ready," he told ABC News.
The Iraq Study Group, chartered by Congress and led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), concluded its deliberations this week with a draft report about 100 pages long. The report is scheduled to be released next Wednesday and will include a variety of conclusions and recommendations about the region. Among other things, the commission considered proposals to reach out to Iran and Syria and to convene a regional conference to bring all of Iraq's neighbors into the process of stabilizing the country.
The panel included a significant caveat for the 2008 goal for troop withdrawals by recommending that commanders should plan to pull out combat units by then unless "unexpected developments" make them decide that such a move would be unwise, the sources said. Still, they said, the plan would put the onus on U.S. commanders to try to meet the goal or explain why they failed to.
Pulling out combat units would not mean the end of the U.S. military involvement in Iraq, which could continue in a different form for years. The withdrawal would be partially offset by an influx of advisers, trainers and embedded troops. The number of such troops now stands at roughly 5,000 and should be quadrupled to about 20,000, the group's plan says, according to a source. The commission envisions leaving at least several thousand quick-strike U.S. combat soldiers to protect all those other American troops.
Although it was not clear how many U.S. troops would be left in Iraq by 2008, some people knowledgeable about the commission's deliberations have said that it might be possible to reduce the force of 140,000 to half by then. "There'll still be a presence there that will be significant just because of the nature of embedded forces," said one of the sources familiar with the commission's report. "It won't be what we have now, I'll tell you that."
The transition from a combat mission to a support mission would be a radical shift in the nature of the U.S. presence in Iraq, in place more than 3 1/2 years since the invasion that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. The commission sees this shift in emphasis as so crucial that it suggests that U.S. commanders begin by reassigning troops directly out of military units already in Iraq, rather than waiting for new advisers to deploy from the United States.
But some military specialists warned that such a transition could result in more violence or even let the country slide into a full-scale civil war. Many U.S. military commanders believe that the American presence is keeping a lid on Iraq's civil conflict. "I think as we pull down troops, the violence is going to get worse -- and that will make it harder to get the Iraqi army stood up," said Frederick W. Kagan, a defense scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Nor would cutting the troop presence increase pressure on Maliki and other Iraqi leaders, a senior U.S. intelligence official contended earlier this week. Rather, he said, it would likely make Iraqi officials feel more endangered and, so, less likely to take risks and make difficult decisions.
Others in Washington cautiously welcomed the emerging report. "I think that the Baker report is . . . going to change the debate in this country," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) told CNN.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), speaking on MSNBC's "Hardball," said that "I suspect there may be a growing bipartisan support in this country for what Jim Baker, Lee Hamilton, the other members of that commission have put together."
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, offered a careful assessment: "It's a welcome change in course, although it's not as specific, or it's not as pointed, or it's not as clear as I would like."