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

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; A01

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."

"There are many connections between the two wars," Nagl said, "and the fact we only have one Army is one of them. We just don't have enough Army to do everything we want it to do right now."

In a 2006 commentary published in the New York Times, Biden warned that Iraq was heading toward partition along ethnic and sectarian lines because of the Bush administration's "profound strategic misjudgments." He wrote that "President Bush does not have a strategy for victory in Iraq," hoping only to "prevent defeat and pass the problem along to his successor."

The problem now sits with Biden, whom Obama made his point man on Iraq soon after taking office. The vice president holds a monthly review session in the situation room modeled after the one Obama runs on Afghanistan. White House aides emphasize that the subject of Iraq comes up frequently in the president and vice president's weekly meetings.

But Biden's selection to manage Iraq policy has sent an unintended message to some outside the administration.

"It gives the impression of second priority, not only to the people of Iraq but also to the NGOs and the United Nations teams working there," said Stephanie Sanok, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who returned in December from a year in Iraq. "Those people are asking: 'Why don't we get the president at this important moment? Why don't we get the highest-level support?' Vice President Biden is a very powerful man, but he's not the top."

As a former longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has a personal history with Iraq's leaders, something he has drawn on to help them work through vexing issues. One senior adviser said Biden "talks to them pol to pol" and has made it clear, when he has needed to, that he has Obama's ear.

Last fall, during a deadlock over a new election law that cast parliamentary voting into doubt, Biden visited Baghdad and the Kurdish city of Irbil, hoping to broker an agreement. He fell short.

So he turned to Obama, asking the president to call Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdish region, with a request to back a political compromise. A day after the 20-minute phone call with Obama, Barzani did just that.

"He got them right up to the edge, but not over," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the incident. "To Biden, this was all about timing."

Feeling vindicated

Biden's 2006 opinion piece, which he co-wrote with Leslie H. Gelb, proposed the creation of "three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad," a federal system he said is precisely the shape of the current arrangement. Yet Biden was forced throughout the 2008 campaign to defend the idea, which his political rivals cast as a call to break up the country.

Biden said he feels largely vindicated today. But he acknowledges that Iraq has moved "beyond what I thought at the time" because, he said, the various ethnic and sectarian-based parties all see value in participating in politics.

"The glue that holds the country together is oil," Biden said. "There's a lot of oil, the promise of it is real, there's a lot of gas, and it's all over the country. Everyone has figured out that getting a legitimate share of a much bigger pie is a pretty good deal."

Biden said he is confident that Iraqi leaders will agree to a government accepted by the electorate before the end of August.

Even if the parties are unsuccessful, he said, Iraq's interim government is functioning well. He dismissed the predictions of escalating violence as the same "sky is falling" worries that accompanied the election-law stalemate and other issues that Iraqi leaders have resolved.

Biden said Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander in Iraq, has never asked the administration to postpone the overall departure schedule. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters last Thursday that Odierno "delayed some withdrawals a little bit" after the Iraqi elections were rescheduled to March, but Gates said he has "every expectation we will meet the 50,000 as of the first of September."

"I don't see anything that's in the realm of probability -- I guess you could come up with a scenario, but I can't think of any rational one based on what's on the ground -- that would lead us to think we need" more time, Biden said. "And, by the way, 50,000 troops is a lot of troops."

Next month, Biden will run a session focusing on the quickening shift of the relationship between the U.S. and Iraqi governments from a mostly military to a mostly civilian one, including stepped-up police training and other programs designed to strengthen the Iraqi state.

"We're long-term invested in this working for them, not long-term invested in being able to be characterized as occupiers," Biden said. "This is not draw down and draw out; this is draw down the military, ramp up the civilian intercourse with the Iraqis."

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