Despite Iraq reports, troops' future is set

Chris Collins / Fresno Bee

WASHINGTON — No matter what Army Gen. David Petraeus tells Congress about the surge in Iraq on Monday, the course for U.S. troops there is already set: Next April, the 30,000 troops who were added this year will begin coming home.

Despite the dueling statistics, the media spin and the maneuvering on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail, no dramatic change in U.S. policy is likely before that, however.

Democrats in Congress who want to force a withdrawal of most combat troops don't have the votes. To pass a law mandating a withdrawal by a certain date, they'd need more Republican support, and most Republicans reject the idea.

U.S. military officials are assuming that the buildup of 30,000 additional American troops will continue until April, although a senior military official told McClatchy Newspapers that they may redeploy a brigade — some 3,500 troops — probably from the Sunni Muslim province of Anbar, where local Iraqi forces can take over. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

By the end of March, however, Pentagon officials said, deployment schedules will force a reduction and the five brigades added for the surge will begin leaving, one month at a time.

Pentagon planners say they can't maintain the surge beyond that without extending deployments beyond the current 15 months, and the nation's top military leaders have said they can't do that with inflicting significant damage on the Army and the Marine Corps.

Some Republicans and Democrats in Congress have begun talking about forging a bipartisan approach to what happens next. Members of Congress want a hand in shaping policy after Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker deliver their reports at congressional hearings Monday and Tuesday.

"We need to determine what our right troop levels are and what our policy needs to be in Iraq, and I'm not sure what that is right now," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "I think most Republicans, as well as Democrats, hope we can draw down the troops, sooner rather than later, but they don't want to do it as a result of short-term politics. So I think the burden is on us _on the secretary of defense, on the president and Congress — to do this thing right, to have a full national discussion."

Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom said Congress had failed to change Iraq policy so far and that he expected more of the same.

"Someone with a sense of purpose, courage and integrity could change the course," said Odom, a longtime critic of the war. "While there are individuals who have done that, so far neither party has shown that kind of leadership."

The debate, Odom said, "is going to be about who gets blamed for the war. Everyone, both in Congress and the White House, will dodge their responsibility to make a decision. They will blame each other."

The Senate will turn to Iraq policy around Sept. 17. Legislation is still being crafted, but outlines have emerged.

Congressional Democrats want to reduce troops below the pre-surge level of some 130,000. They say the force remaining in Iraq should have a limited mission: fighting terrorists, protecting the borders with Syria and Iran to stop the flow of fighters and weapons, and protecting American installations and personnel.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Democrats probably would continue to demand a withdrawal deadline but they'd also consider other ways to change policy.

"We're not backing off anything," Reid said Thursday. He said it was likely that the Senate would vote again on a timeline suggested by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed, D-R.I., calling for a withdrawal to begin in 120 days and all U.S. forces to leave by April 30, except for those remaining to carry out the more limited missions. It also called for American support for international diplomacy on Iraq.

Levin and Reed are considering alternative versions of their plan, including leaving the end date open as a goal. Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, are working on a measure that would require a change in mission similar to what Levin and Reed have in mind.

Majority Leader Reid said Democrats might try other approaches more likely to win support from the 10 more Republicans they need to clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate. "It has to be something that's meaningful," Reid said. "I will not support a bipartisan piece of legislation unless it forces the president to do something."

Reid said Senate Democrats also would push hard for an amendment offered in July by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that calls for service members to have the same amount of time at home between deployments as they've spent in Iraq or Afghanistan.

That would limit the available pool of forces, nudging the military toward a drawdown. Only a few more Republican supporters are needed to pass it. While the measure allows Bush a waiver, it would underscore how the Iraq war has strained the military.

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is considering putting up a measure for a vote that would require military planning for a withdrawal. The House also might take up a measure similar to the Webb amendment on longer rest time.

Democrats who demand a withdrawal say they won't stop pushing for one.

"We will continue to do what is right: reach out across the aisle to our friends and colleagues on the Republican side . . . to push for a bipartisan consensus towards wise redeployment of our forces in Iraq," Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said at a hearing Thursday.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., one of the few congressional Republicans who've long opposed the war, said Friday that the views of some Republicans were changing and both parties might be ready to talk about a new plan. "You cannot just sit back and just watch," Jones said.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said Congress had put off a real discussion of what was right for national security, waiting for the Petraeus and Crocker reports. Now, he said, debate must begin on a strategy that will be sustainable and that fits with other national security interests.

"Regardless of what the Petraeus report says, it is very likely that there will be changes in missions and force levels as the year proceeds," Lugar said at a hearing Wednesday. "We need to be planning for what comes next."