BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. military leaders in Iraq and in Washington on Wednesday rejected the calls for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, underscoring the difficulty of reaching any consensus on a new Iraq policy.
In an exclusive interview in Baghdad, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told McClatchy Newspapers that the situation in Iraq remains too unstable to withdraw troops and that setting a date for U.S. troops to start leaving would "just allow folks to wait us out."
In Washington, Army Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, went further, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that more U.S. troops could be needed to stabilize the country.
"We have every option on the table, and we will present them to the chain of command," Abizaid said.
Asked by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., if that meant sending more troops to Iraq, Abizaid said, "To include that."
The comments highlighted the conflict that's likely to divide Congress and the military over Iraq policy as newly empowered Democrats push the Bush administration to start bringing some troops home.
Levin, who'll chair the Senate Armed Services Committee when the new Congress convenes in January, said President Bush should tell Iraqi leaders that U.S. forces will begin gradually withdrawing in four to six months.
"We should put the responsibility for Iraq's future squarely where it belongs—on the Iraqis," Levin said. "We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves."
In the wake of the Democrats' election victory last week and the resignation the next day of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, expectations for a change in Iraq strategy have grown. On Monday, Bush met with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and other members of the Iraq Study Group, a 10-member panel that's studying options for Iraq policy and is expected to make a recommendation in early December.
But it's unclear whether the group will recommend substantial changes or whether Bush will accept its recommendations. The military officers' comments suggest they see little choice but to pursue present policy.
In his interview, Casey said the United States must draw down troops only when Iraqi forces can stand on their own. U.S. forces have been working for three years to build Iraqi army and police units that are capable of fighting insurgents, but the results have been mixed.
"We have always thought that we would gradually reduce our forces. So I am not against reducing troops," Casey said. "It's just got to be balanced with the Iraqi security forces and the situation on the ground. That's always been the strategy."
Casey also repeated what U.S. commanders have been saying for some time—that the U.S. has enough troops in Iraq and that increasing troops wouldn't improve the situation. "As I have said from the beginning, I will ask for what I need to get the job done, and I have," he said. "Right now, we have what we need."
Casey said U.S. military strategy in Iraq was working, even though it may be too slow for some. He said that the Baghdad security plan, which was initiated in August, has reduced violence between Shiites and Sunnis, though he acknowledged that the number of deaths in October—1,600, according to Baghdad's morgue—was "high."
"But those are not as high as what we saw in the summer," he said.
The situation in Iraq remains too volatile for the United States to set a timetable to start withdrawing troops, Casey said.
"I don't think that's a good idea at all," he said. "That just allows folks to wait us out."
In Washington, little new information came out of the Senate hearing.
David Satterfield, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, said the administration could be ready to discuss the situation in Iraq with neighboring Iran, something Baker has hinted in television interviews that the study group might recommend. The administration hasn't decided under what conditions it might be willing to do so.
"We are prepared in principle to discuss Iranian activities in Iraq," Satterfield said. "The timing of such direct dialogue is one that we still have under review."
The Bush administration accuses Iran of supporting radical Shiite militias in Iraq and charges that Syria turns a blind eye to Sunni insurgents sneaking across its borders. Bush has said he'll talk to Iran if it abandons its nuclear program, which it has refused to do.
As for troop levels, while Abizaid said it was possible that the U.S. would consider increasing the number of soldiers in Iraq, his basic position was unchanged.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., if more U.S. troops were needed in Iraq, Abizaid said he believed that troop levels "need to stay where they are."
Later, he told Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that sending 20,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq might "achieve a temporary effect," but that he didn't believe the Army and the Marine Corps could "sustain the commitment."
Abizaid also told McCain that he'd met with Casey and every division commander in Iraq and asked them if more U.S. forces would "add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq."
"And they all said no," Abizaid said. "And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more."
(Youssef reported from Baghdad, Brown from Washington.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.