BAGHDAD — The top U.S. military commander in Iraq isn't buying the increasingly popular idea of a publicly stated timetable for American troop withdrawal.
Gen. David Petraeus, the Iraq commander, said in an interview with McClatchy that the situation in Iraq is too volatile to "project out, and to then try to plant a flag on, a particular date."
With violence at its lowest levels of the war, politicians in both the United States and Iraq are getting behind the idea of a departure timetable. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was first, suggesting he would have combat troops home within 16 months of Inauguration Day. The idea got a big boost during his overseas trip, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki indicated support for that general timeline.
During a Friday interview on CNN's "The Situation Room," Republican candidate John McCain, who had opposed setting a timeline, appeared to shift ground. McCain said that 16 months "is a pretty good timetable" but must be based on conditions on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has embraced "time horizons" as it negotiates with the Iraqi government a status of forces agreement over the future role of U.S. troops. Petraeus said any timetable must have "a heck of a lot more granularity than the kind of very short-hand statements that have been put out."
"We occasionally have commanders who have so many good weeks, (they think) it's won. We've got this thing. Well we don't. We've had so many good weeks. Right now, for example we've had two-and-a-half months of levels of violence not since March 2004," he said from his office at Camp Victory.
"Well that's encouraging. It's heartening. It's very welcome. But let's keep our powder dry. . . .Let's not let our guard down."
Petraeus is pushing for a more nuanced debate as both U.S. and Iraqi political leaders are in campaign seasons, with many voters in both countries wanting to hear there is an end. Maliki is trying to sway voters in time for this fall's scheduled provincial elections by winning support from his political rival, firebrand cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who has called for a U.S. withdrawal date since 2004.
Throughout his tenure, Petraeus has argued for a drawdown based on conditions, saying that the last of the five surge brigades could leave earlier this month because Iraqi forces are increasingly capable of securing Iraq.
Petraeus said that while both Sunni and Shiite extremists groups are weaker, Iraqi security forces still face threats as the groups try to reconstitute themselves throughout Iraq. And because of that, U.S. and Iraqi forces must not assume that the battle here is won, he said.
Maliki's surprise spring offensive in the southern port city of Basra was a turning point in the security situation. It rid Iraq's second-largest city of militia control and bolstered the confidence of both the Iraqi people and military. But the Iraqi security forces turned to U.S. troops to help them win, leading some to call for a more cautious withdrawal plan.
Petraeus has said he believes there will be a "long-term partnership" in which the U.S. acts primarily in an advisory role to Iraqi forces, but with enough combat power to step in and help if major battles erupt. But he said that that like most things in Iraq, plans could change.
"We know where we are trying to go. We know how we think we need to try to get there with our Iraqi partners and increasingly with them in the lead and shouldering more of the burden as they are," Petraeus said.
"But there are a lot of storm clouds out there, there are lots of these possible lightning bolts. You just don't know what it could be. You try to anticipate them and you try to react very quickly. . . .It's all there, but it's not something you want to lay out publicly."