Warner: Begin troop withdrawal by Christmas
GOP senator says move will send a warning to Iraq that time is running out
NEW YORK - Sen. John Warner said Thursday President Bush should start bringing home some troops by Christmas to show the Baghdad government that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended.
The move puts the prominent Republican at odds with the president, who says conditions on the ground should dictate deployments.
Warner, R-Va., said the troop withdrawals are needed because Iraqi leaders have failed to make substantial political progress, despite an influx of U.S. troops initiated by Bush earlier this year.
The departure of even a small number of U.S. service members — perhaps 5,000 out of the 160,000 troops in Iraq — would send a powerful message throughout the region that time was running out, he said.
“We simply cannot as a nation stand and continue to put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action,” he told reporters after a White House meeting with Bush’s top aides.
Warner’s new position is a sharp challenge to a wartime president that will undoubtedly color the upcoming Iraq debate on Capitol Hill. Next month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to brief members on the war’s progress.
A White House spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, declined to say whether Bush might consider Warner’s suggestion.
Asked whether Bush would leave the door open to setting a timetable, Johndroe said: “I don’t think the president feels any differently about setting a specific timetable for withdrawal. I just think it’s important that we wait right now to hear from our commanders on the ground about the way ahead.”
Report warns against pullout
Warner’s statement came hours after the nation’s top spy analysts concluded in an intelligence report that Iraq’s neighbors will continue to try to expand their leverage in anticipation that the United States will soon leave.
The National Intelligence Estimate found the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is strained by rampant violence, deep sectarian differences among its political parties and stymied leadership.
It predicted that the Iraqi government “will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months” because of criticism from various Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions. “To date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively,” it said.
Warner said he has serious concerns about the effectiveness of the current leadership, confirmed by the intelligence report. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq predicted it would be 12 months before the U.S. could expect a reconciliation.
“When I see an NIE which corroborates my own judgment — that political reconciliation has not taken place — the al-Maliki government has let down the U.S. forces and, to an extent, his own Iraqi forces,” he said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the report confirms what most Americans already know: “Our troops are mired in an Iraqi civil war and the president’s escalation strategy has failed to produce the political results he promised to our troops and the American people.”
“Every day that we continue to stick to the president’s flawed strategy is a day that America is not as secure as it could be,” said Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Report warns against scaling back
The new National Intelligence Estimate was an update of another high-level assessment prepared six months ago by the top analysts scattered across all 16 U.S. spy agencies. The CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency were the key contributors to Thursday’s report, which found some security progress but elusive hopes for reconciliation among Iraq’s feuding groups.
The 2006 bipartisan Iraq Study Group report recommended reducing the number of troops and putting them in a support and training role for Iraqi forces, along with a small U.S. counterterrorist force to target al-Qaida in Iraq.
That recommendation by the independent panel was once flatly rejected by the White House, but lately has gained more currency as advisers search for a way out of the U.S. combat presence in Iraq by the end of Bush’s presidency.
The intelligence report warns against scaling back the mission of U.S. forces. Analysts found that changing the U.S. military’s mission from its current focus — countering insurgents and stabilizing the country — in favor of supporting Iraqi forces and stopping terrorists would hurt the security gains of the last six months.
Republicans, including Warner, have so far stuck with Bush and rejected Democratic proposals demanding troops leave Iraq by a certain date. But an increasing number of GOP members have said they are uneasy about the war and want to see Bush embrace a new strategy if substantial progress is not made by September.
Warner, known for his party loyalty, said he still opposes setting a fixed timetable on the war or forcing the president’s hand.
“Let the president establish the timetable for withdrawal, not the Congress,” he said.
Stature may sway others
Nevertheless, his suggestion of troop withdrawals is likely to embolden Democrats and rile some of his GOP colleagues, who insist lawmakers must wait until Petraeus testifies.
His stature on military issues also could sway some Republicans who have been reluctant to challenge a wartime president. Warner is a former Navy secretary and one-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; he is now the committee’s second-ranking Republican.
Warner said he came to his conclusion after visiting Iraq this month with Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, committee chairman. Earlier this week, Levin said al-Maliki should be replaced. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., followed suit, saying al-Maliki has been “a failure.”