By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008 4:43 PM
The U.S. military would require two to three years to remove its roughly 150,000 troops and equipment from Iraq safely, and the timing of that withdrawal should be based on security conditions on the ground, the nation's top military officer said today.
"To remove the entire force would be, you know, two to three years," Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
While Mullen said that he and the top commanders for Iraq and the region, Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. David Petraeus, were "comfortable" with the status of forces agreement signed with Iraq today, he described some logistical hurdles to a U.S. troop withdrawal along a fixed timeline.
"We have 150,000 troops in Iraq right now. We have lots of bases. We have an awful lot of equipment that's there. And so we would have to look at all of that tied to, obviously, the conditions that are there, literally the security conditions," he said.
"Clearly, we'd want to be able to do it safely."
Asked about a requirement that U.S. troops move out of Iraqi cities by mid-2009, Mullen said the gradual shift from urban areas has been the practice as Iraqi forces take responsibility for security in different provinces. But he said the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and northern city of Mosul were likely to pose special challenges.
"Turning the security of Baghdad over in that requirement will be a big challenge," he said. "The other that is clearly not secure up north is Mosul. And we continue to be in a pretty tough fight up in Mosul," he said.
Mullen emphasized that he still believes any U.S. troop reductions should be based on the levels of violence in Iraq - a position that runs counter to the official Iraqi stance.
Anticipating possible policy shifts on Iraq under the Obama administration, Mullen indicated the Joint Staff was planning for a range of options. "We're always taking into consideration plans based on what we understand possibilities might be," he said.
"President-elect Obama has also said is that he would seek the counsel of myself and the Joint Chiefs before he made any decisions. And so I look forward to that discussion, look forward to the engagement," he said.
Turning to the growing problem of piracy, Mullen said he was "stunned" that Somali pirates had attacked and taken over a 300,000-ton Saudi oil tanker about 450 nautical miles southeast of the Kenyan coast.
"I'm stunned by the range" of the Nov. 15 pirate strike, which took place farther offshore than any other, Mullen said. He also said small bands of pirates have proven highly skilled at taking over much larger ships.
"They're very well armed. Tactically, they're very good. And so once they get to a point where they can board, it becomes very difficult to get them off, because, clearly, now they hold hostages," he said.
The problem of piracy is serious and growing, he said. There has been an "extraordinary rise" in the number of attacks, and the U.S. Navy will take a more active role to combat them, Mullen said.
"I am extremely concerned by the overall number. And we're going to continue to have to bring pressure on these pirates," he said.