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Troop Withdrawal May Be Delayed
Associated Press | March 03, 2006WASHINGTON - President Bush is expected to meet with top U.S. military commanders next week, just as the escalating violence in Iraq threatens to complicate the administration's goal of withdrawing more troops this year.
So far, military officials say they have made no decisions on future troop withdrawals. They say they are sticking to current plans to send additional units to Iraq later this summer, and acknowledge that a decision will have to be made soon on whether to keep some of those troops home instead.
One Defense Department official said the military is waiting to see if attacks between the majority Shiite Muslims and the Sunni Arabs escalate or slack off. Military units will continue preparing to go to Iraq because it is easier to cancel deployment orders than to restart preparations if troops are suddenly needed, said the official, who requested anonymity because troop decisions have not been finalized.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a military spokesman in Baghdad, played down suggestions the fragile country is on the brink of civil war. He said Thursday there is a sense that this may just be another peak in the violence in Iraq, and it may not continue at the level seen in recent days.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Gen. John Abizaid, chief of Central Command, are expected to meet with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Bush next week, according to defense officials who also requested anonymity because details are tentative.
Defense officials have said they would reassess troop levels in the spring, and the Pentagon has hoped to reduce the military presence in Iraq to below 100,000 by year's end. There are currently 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
The 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii, and seven other major military units are scheduled to deploy to Iraq as part of the next troop rotation this summer.
The meeting with Bush comes in the wake of a surge of sectarian violence triggered by the Feb. 22 bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra. About 500 lives have been lost. U.S. officials have been struggling to hold together negotiations between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders aimed at forming an inclusive government in the war-torn country.
Rumsfeld said the U.S. must keep enough troops in Iraq to support the fledgling government, but not so many that they will fuel the insurgency and make Iraqis think the U.S. is there only for oil.
"The mission and the focus of what our forces are doing has not changed this week from last week or last month," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "Any spike in violence is unfortunate and is always concerning, but we tend to look at these things broadly and over time, and base our decisions on trends and on what the commanders on the ground feel is an appropriate balance."
One prominent lawmaker who has called for a quick withdrawal said his view has not changed.
"We're in the middle of a civil war," Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said this week. "We've got to get our guys out of there."
He predicted that Republicans in Congress will pressure the administration to follow through on plans to reduce troop levels as Election Day draws closer regardless of whether the violence has abated.
Middle East experts, however, warn that the military is facing a difficult choice: Continue the gradual withdrawal and risk leaving the country in chaos, or stay in an increasingly dangerous and divided Iraq and try to force national unity.
The escalating bloodshed, they say, is happening too fast for U.S. forces to train and equip the Iraqi military and police to handle it. That may force troops to stay in Iraq longer to try to quell the violence.
"Whether we stay or not in response to the violence - there is not a straightforward answer," said Vali R. Nasr, a Middle East analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations. "We can't leave Iraq before it's stable because that creates greater danger. Or we have to leave Iraq because it creates greater danger - if there is a collapse of security in the south, U.S. troops may be overwhelmed."
John Alterman, the Middle East program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that as violence increases, more Iraqis will turn to the sectarian-based militias for protection. That would further erode efforts to unite the country, and drive a bigger wedge between the ethnic and religious factions.
Right now, he said, "people feel that the national institutions - the Army or police forces - won't protect them as Iraqis, but will instead harm them as Sunni, Shia or something else."
And, he said, the dilemma for the military and U.S. policy-makers is whether the coalition should force unity in Iraq, even if the violence declines a bit as the country splits up into various sectarian regions.
"Increasing segregation could result in a decrease in violence; is that something they would work to change?" Alterman said. "As things become more sectarian, does that become part of our mission to address, or do we chalk it up to things beyond our control?"
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