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Debate over U.S. withdrawal from Iraq heats up

WASHINGTON—With casualties and financial costs mounting and public support for the war declining, the Bush administration is under increasing pressure to come up with a strategy for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.

President Bush has said the United States must stay the course because leaving Iraq before a stable government is in place and Iraqi security forces are capable of fighting insurgents on their own would leave that country in the hands of terrorists.

Some experts agree, saying the United States has little choice but to stay in Iraq until the president's conditions are met, because leaving too soon would lead to a civil war or even a regional conflict. Others argue that Iraq will become stable only when American forces leave.

"What began as a war of choice has now become a war of necessity. But I don't think that's been clearly communicated by the administration or understood very well by the American people," said Andrew F. Krepinevich, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan policy-research institute.

Krepinevich has advocated that U.S. and Iraqi forces focus on clearing out insurgents and establishing security in major cities and other key areas one at a time, instead of everywhere at once. The strategy would require years of commitment in terms of resources and American forces.

The only "backup plan" left is for the administration to "pick a despot (to run Iraq) and support him" and hope he respects our interests, he said.

Turkey fears that a move by Iraqi Kurds to establish their own country would stir up separatist sentiment among Kurds in Turkey; Shiite Muslim Iran sympathizes with Iraqi Shiites; and Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan back their brethren in Iraq.

"These people are playing for high stakes," Krepinevich said. "There will be no moderating influence as far as I can see."

The Senate's vote this week that Bush come up with a strategy for withdrawing troops is one example of how expectations for Iraq's future have been scaled back, said W. Andrew Terrill, the co-author of an Army War College study about disengagement that was published last month.

The message now seems to be "find a way out so that Iraq stays in one piece, but let's not set our goals so high that we stay there longer ...," he said. "If we can find a way to withdraw and there's no civil war, that's getting a long way towards the goals we want to see."

Unless the United States determines that Iraq is "doomed," it must stay the course until a stable government and security forces are achieved, Terrill said. Setting an arbitrary timetable before those conditions are met would invite disaster, he said.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, a former National Security Agency director, has argued that Iraq already is a disaster. The only way to ensure that Iraq ever will achieve any semblance of stability is for U.S. forces to leave, he said.

"Bush says he wants to bring democracy and stability to the greater Middle East," Odom wrote in an essay earlier this month. "But in fact, the only way to achieve that goal is to get out of Iraq now."

Calling Iraq a "dead end street," Odom said it was "the worst place to fight a battle for regional stability." The two primary beneficiaries of the American-led invasion have been Iran and al-Qaida, "and that continues to be true every day U.S. forces remain there," he said.

Recounting how badly frayed America's relations with its allies have become over Iraq, Odom maintains that the United States must withdraw in order to repair those relationships. Then it must work out a joint approach with its allies toward the Middle East, he said.

As long as the United States remains in Iraq, it can't "think clearly" about what constitutes common interest in the Middle East, "much less gain agreement about common interests for a coalition," said Odom, who's now a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Hudson Institute.

"Putting it bluntly, those who insist on staying in Iraq longer make the consequences of withdrawal more terrible and make it harder to find an alternative strategy for achieving regional stability," he said.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.