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Obama Sets Timetable for Iraq Withdrawal, Calling It Part of Broader Middle East Strategy
Another new envoy, Dennis Ross, has been named to explore ways to begin a dialogue with Tehran, even as Obama yesterday pledged to "use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon."
But full realization of those expansive plans depends on cleaning up the Iraq problem that has drained U.S. troops, treasure and attention for so many years.
In describing the administration's goals for Iraq, Obama touched all the bases, saying the United States will work with the United Nations to support upcoming elections, help improve local government and "serve as an honest broker in pursuit of fair and durable agreements on issues that have divided Iraq's leaders." U.S. troops will continue training Iraq's security forces. Assistance will be rendered to millions of Iraqis displaced and exiled by the war.
"What we will not do," he said, "is let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals. We cannot rid Iraq of all who oppose America or sympathize with our adversaries. We cannot police Iraq's streets until they are completely safe, nor stay until Iraq's union is perfected. We cannot sustain indefinitely a commitment that has put a strain on our military and will cost the American people nearly a trillion dollars."
Despite its historical and political resonance, the date for ending the U.S. combat mission was perhaps destined to fall in the relatively narrow window between Obama's initial 16-month pledge and the December U.S.-Iraqi agreement that the last U.S. soldier would leave by Dec. 31, 2011. In selecting August 2010 -- 19 months after his inauguration -- Obama followed the recommendations of his senior military advisers.
A senior military official said yesterday that troops remaining after 2010, while not officially designated as "combat brigades," would remain "in harm's way," embedded with Iraqi combat forces and in U.S. counterterrorism missions. The official said that U.S. commanders hope to maintain a presence in Kirkuk, the northern, oil-rich city claimed by both Iraqi Arabs and Kurds and whose status has yet to be decided, and in Mosul, where al-Qaeda forces remain active.
Under the plan, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, will assess the overall situation every six months to allow Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to provide guidance to Obama. Although some U.S. units will leave Iraq between now and early next year, the bulk of the combat force is expected to remain, under Odierno's recommendation, at least until national elections take place in December and their outcome is decided.
The military official recalled that the last time Iraqis went to the polls to elect a national government, in December 2005, the nation's fractious political parties did not settle on a prime minister until the following April -- a timeframe that also marked the beginning of an explosion of violence that led to the buildup of U.S. forces in early 2007.
"This is not a question of how fast you can withdraw," the official said, but rather of how large a force is required "to do what you said you were going to do. . . . Ray Odierno is not a wild-eyed optimist. He went through the dark years. He is not going to write a report to the president of the United States that is all sun and roses."