BAGHDAD — Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said Thursday that the greatest error the United States could make in Iraq would be a hurried withdrawal. However, he expressed confidence after talks with President Barack Obama that the new chief executive won't make that mistake.
"It's one that I do not think the U.S. is going to make," Crocker said. "If it were to be a precipitous withdrawal . . . that could be very dangerous, but I think it's clear that that's not the direction in which this is trending."
Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, took part in a video conference about the war with Obama and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday, the president's first full day in office.
Crocker said that Obama reiterated the words of his inaugural address, in which he said that he'd withdraw American troops from Iraq "responsibly."
During his campaign, Obama pledged a 16-month withdrawal plan. That would mean pulling out U.S. forces more than a year before the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline in the long-term security agreement, which took effect Jan. 1. The agreement can be amended if the United States and Iraq agree to change it.
"We're worried about a too-swift withdrawal," Crocker said. "That's when I think the spirit of compromise, of accommodation, of focus on institutional development, all of that could run the risk of getting set aside."
He said the reaction in Iraq would be, "Uh, oh, we had better pull back, dig the trenches, build the berms and get ready for whatever comes next."
He added: "I'm not saying that that will happen, but I think these are dangers that could happen."
When Crocker arrived in Iraq in March 2007, civilians were being murdered daily and Iraqis were cowering in their homes. Bodies thrown on the sides of roads piled into the morgue at an average of 50 a day. Today, car bombs, assassinations and roadside bombs still kill dozens, but the sectarian warfare is gone.
The U.S. Embassy has moved from the Republican Palace, one of Saddam Hussein's most opulent, to a sprawling 104-acre complex along the Tigris River. The palace, the former symbol of the American occupation, will go to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
This year, Iraq will hold at least four elections and very possibly a referendum on the security agreement. They could change the balance of power in the country and lead to a new political landscape and possibly a new round of violence.
Crocker said that key challenges ahead included determining how much power the central government would have in relation to the regional and provincial governments. Kurdish-Arab tensions in the north remain a destabilizing and difficult problem, he said.
In addition, "Security does have to be maintained. Neither the Iraqis nor we can take our eyes off that ball," he said. "Progress has been really significant, but we cannot underestimate the challenges."
Provincial elections Jan. 31 are a key to stability, as those who fought U.S. forces and the government of mostly foreign exiles for so long now are running for seats in the provinces. Kurds and Arabs are vying for power in Nineveh province, where Kurds dominate the provincial council, and Shiite and Sunni Muslims are competing for Diyala province, where the sectarian violence once was among the worst in Iraq.
Some Iraqis fear that Maliki has grown too strong and could become a dictator, while others worry that the country will break apart into three nations of Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.
"We're at a very encouraging, hopeful point, but it is not a culminating point by any means," Crocker said. "It's not a point at which I at least can lay claims to legacy or make any claims resembling a definitive judgment. It is still fragile, and it is still reversible."
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