Gates, U.S. General Back Long Iraq Stay

The visiting Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and President Bush meet with reporters in the Oval Office.
The visiting Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and President Bush meet with reporters in the Oval Office. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and a senior U.S. commander said yesterday that they favor a protracted U.S. troop presence in Iraq along the lines of the military stabilization force in South Korea.

Gates told reporters in Hawaii that he is thinking of "a mutual agreement" with Iraq in which "some force of Americans . . . is present for a protracted period of time, but in ways that are protective of the sovereignty of the host government." Gates said such a long-term U.S. presence would assure allies in the Middle East that the United States will not withdraw from Iraq as it did from Vietnam, "lock, stock and barrel."

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who oversees daily military operations in Iraq, supported the idea at a news conference in which he also said U.S. military units are trying to reach cease-fire agreements with Iraqi insurgents.

Odierno said he sees benefits in maintaining a South Korean-style force in Iraq for years. "I think it's a great idea," he said, adding that the Iraqi and U.S. governments would have to make that decision.

"That would be nothing but helping the Iraqi security forces and the government to continue to stabilize itself, and continue to set itself up for success for years to come, if we were able to do that," Odierno told Pentagon reporters in a videoconference from Baghdad.

The comments represented the second time this week that administration officials invoked the American experience in South Korea in citing the need for a long-range U.S. military presence in Iraq. Concerns that U.S. forces might stay for a lengthy period have provoked considerable controversy in the region.

Yesterday's statements echoed those by White House press secretary Tony Snow on Wednesday. Snow had sparked quick criticism from Democratic lawmakers and liberal activist groups when he said that President Bush envisions a troop posture in Iraq similar to that in South Korea.

Iraqi forces, Snow said, would provide the bulk of security, but U.S. troops would be deployed in an "over-the-horizon support role so that if you need the ability to react quickly to major challenges or crises, you can be there." He said that "what you're really dealing with is the internal security of Iraq, rather than trying to provide a reassurance against an external foe."

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) responded by accusing Bush of "equating U.S. troop involvement in the endless Iraqi civil war to the post-Korean War security model, telling Americans that he may keep our troops mired in Iraq for as long as half a century."

Snow had said, however, that he was not suggesting a 50-year deployment and characterized the potential duration as "unanswerable."

Odierno cited some progress in Iraq and said U.S. forces are negotiating cease-fires with local Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups that it considers "reconcilable" in an effort to reduce violence.

Odierno said he recently gave military commanders authority to strike such agreements with insurgent groups that have staged attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces. He said that he thinks 80 percent of the fighters -- including Sunni insurgents, Shiite militia such as the Mahdi Army, and possibly a small number of al-Qaeda in Iraq members -- are "reconcilable," meaning they could be persuaded to lay down their weapons.

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