U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will be on time, Vice President Biden says

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010

President Obama called Iraq his predecessor's war of choice. Now it is his war to exit -- and quickly.

The challenge for Obama, whose opposition to the Iraq invasion helped propel him to the presidency, is sticking to his timeline for a U.S. military withdrawal despite a jump in violence and continued wrangling among Iraqi politicians over who will lead the country.

The sensitive departure is being managed by Vice President Biden, who says the U.S. military will reduce troop levels to 50,000 this summer, even if no new Iraqi government takes shape.

"It's going to be painful; there's going to be ups and downs," Biden said in a 40-minute interview in his West Wing office this month. "But I do think the end result is going to be that we're going to be able to keep our commitment."

White House officials say Iraqis are increasingly relying on politics, rather than violence, to deal with disputes, diminishing the need for U.S. forces. But the situation on the ground demonstrates that Iraq remains fractured.

Rival factions have yet to establish a new government, nearly three months after close national elections, and politicians have begun warning of a power vacuum as neighboring Iran works to influence the outcome. Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of Iraq's vice presidents, urged all parties this month to agree quickly on a new leader to head off attempts by "terrorist gangs to use the circumstances in the country to hurt the Iraqi people and the armed forces."

Some recent attacks have had sectarian hallmarks that Iraqis fear could revive the divisions within their security forces that existed during the 2006 civil war. Iraq's factions also have yet to resolve such essential long-term issues as how to share oil revenue among regions and how to settle territorial disputes rooted in history.

Speaking Saturday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama said that the U.S. commitment to Iraq endures and that, as U.S. troops depart, "a strong American civilian presence will help Iraqis forge political and economic progress." He also reiterated his definition of success: "an Iraq that provides no haven to terrorists; a democratic Iraq that is sovereign and stable and self-reliant." On the day Obama spoke, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq dipped below the number in Afghanistan for the first time since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Biden, once a leading skeptic of U.S. involvement in Iraq, is now among the country's most ardent cheerleaders. He is seeking to balance Obama's determination to leave Iraq against growing concerns among some conservative critics that the current circumstances make a swift U.S. withdrawal too dangerous.

Senior administration officials counter that Iraq's fledgling democracy, now defended by improved domestic security forces, is sturdy enough to solve the country's problems with far fewer U.S. troops on hand.

The Afghanistan factor

But even some of the administration's supporters say that analysis is grounded more in the rising demands of the war in Afghanistan -- where U.S. troop levels are expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the summer -- than in an impartial assessment of Iraq's progress. The withdrawal plan calls for reducing U.S. troops in Iraq from 92,000 today to 50,000 by the end of August, down from a peak of about 170,000 during 2007. The last U.S. troops are scheduled to exit at the end of 2011.

"Leaving Iraq is not only a public relations issue, but a recovery-of-force issue," said John A. Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, who served as an Army officer in Iraq and helped write the Army's counterinsurgency field manual. "The Army has not recovered from its surge into Iraq, and now it is surging in Afghanistan, which hasn't turned the corner at all."

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