AFP: The Pentagon is caught between the fragile security gains made in Iraq over the past few months and the need to give US soldiers weary of combat duty time to rest. WASHINGTON (AFP) The Pentagon is caught between the fragile security gains made in Iraq over the past few months and the need to give US soldiers weary of combat duty time to rest.
The commander of US-led coalition forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday along with US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on progress in Iraq.
Petraeus is expected to call for a pause in the planned withdrawal of some 16,000 US forces that had been scheduled for mid-year. Under this plan the number of US troops in Iraq would drop from 156,000 to around 140,000.
Over the last few months US officials have been emphasizing the security gains made in Iraq after US President George W. Bush ordered a “surge” of some 30,000 US forces in January.
Other factors also played an important role, including Sunni tribes joining US-funded programs to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and a truce called by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, who heads the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
The Sadr truce however was strained in late March when Iraqi army soldiers loyal to Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki tried to crack down on Mahdi Army forces in the southern port of Basra. Sadr let his forces fight in self defense, and the Iraqi soldiers failed to make major gains.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the head of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday applauded the “strategic intent” of Maliki’s Basra crackdown.
However, he said, “I think it’s too early to tell what the … strategic outcome is and was it a win or a loss or a victory or a defeat.”
Petraus’ push for a pause in the withdrawal of US troops is likely to anger Democratic legislators, who want a quick drawdown of US forces from Iraq.
Joseph Biden, chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday he would be pressing Petraeus and Crocker on the effect of the “surge” and plans for the future, “both in terms of US force levels and US policy for succeeding in Iraq.”
The proposed troop pause in Iraq also raises issues of manpower stress for the US army.
Army Chief of Staff General George Casey has called for a move to cut overseas deployment from the current 15 months to 12 months. Gates said he will decide on the proposal after he hears Petraeus’ recommendations.
Shorter tours would ease the strain on the army, but limit the availability of troops for deployment.
Mullen has acknowledged that there is an “invisible red line” concerning the strength of the US army.
“We don’t want to cross it, and we don’t know exactly where it is,” Mullen said, adding: “I think we’re close to (the red line) now.”
The push to cut US forces in Iraq is especially pressing after Bush told NATO leaders on Friday that he would be making a “significant additional contribution” of US troops to Afghanistan in 2009, beyond the 30,000 US soldiers already in place.
Bush did not say how many troops would go, or when and where they would be deployed.
In a possible preview to the Petraeus hearings, a letter signed by top Congressional Democrats to Bush said that US officials “must urgently seek political accommodation among Iraqis and transition the US mission in Iraq.
“Our military has done its best in Iraq; it is time for the Iraqis and the administration’s civilian leaders to do their part.”
The “repeated and extended deployments to Iraq have greatly strained our military’s capabilities,” with readiness levels down to levels “not seen since Vietnam,” said the letter.
Carlos Pascual, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institute think-tank, told a recent hearing in Congress that the failure of US policy in Iraq “presents us with an untenable situation.”
A withdrawal “will most likely result in an internal conflagration that could spill over borders, increase the threat of trans-national terrorism, send oil prices soaring further, and add to the number and anguish of 4.5 million Iraqi refugees and displaced people,” said Pascual.
“Yet, keeping American troops in Iraq is an unsustainable stop-gap in the absence of major progress toward a political settlement among Iraq’s competing and warring factions,” he added.