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.
"There are insurgents reaching out to us . . . so we want to reach back to them," Odierno said. "We're talking about cease-fires and maybe signing some things that say they won't conduct operations against the government of Iraq or against coalition forces."
The overtures to insurgent groups, tribes and religious leaders are part of a push by the U.S. military to generate political accommodation at local and eventually national levels, Odierno said.
Odierno also cited progress resulting from the buildup of 28,500 U.S. troops in Iraq, but he appealed for patience and said he may need time beyond September to determine whether the "surge" ordered by Bush in January is working. "The assessment might be . . . 'I need a little more time,' " he said.
The troop increase will be completed in mid-June, with 8,000 more U.S. combat personnel moving into position in Baghdad and its outskirts and in Anbar province over the next two weeks. Odierno said it will take until at least August for those forces to be "immersed into the local populace" and be able to improve security.
Odierno said the extra troops have produced "some very clear progress." He cited military data showing that since January, operations in Iraq have detained nearly 18,000 people, discovered about 2,500 weapons caches, killed more than 3,184 enemy fighters and wounded 1,016. In Baghdad, where about 50,000 U.S. combat troops and 79,000 Iraqi security forces are operating, civilian deaths -- including those from sectarian violence -- are lower than in January, although they increased in May over the previous two months, he said. Operations have added security barriers to 11 Baghdad markets and helped generate 32,000 jobs, and have spent more than $35 million on reconstruction and humanitarian projects, he said.
Still, Odierno said that he expects hard fighting ahead. In coming weeks, he said, the focus of U.S. military operations will be on insurgent sanctuaries in the outskirts of Baghdad, especially to the south and east in Diyala province.
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.