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Commander says early withdrawal of U.S. troops would only worsen Iraq’s violence

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. commander in the Middle East warned Congress Wednesday against setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, rejecting the arguments of resurgent Democrats who are pressing President Bush to start pulling out.
    Gen. John Abizaid instead urged quick action to strengthen Iraq’s government, predicting that the vicious sectarian violence in Baghdad would surge out of control within four to six months unless immediate steps are taken.
    ‘‘Our troop posture needs to stay where it is,’’ and the use of military adviser teams embedded with Iraqi army and police forces needs to be expanded, Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was the first hearing on Iraq policy since last week’s elections gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress starting in January.
    The voting last week has been widely interpreted as a public repudiation of Bush’s policies on the war, which has left more than 2,850 U.S. troops dead and more than 20,000 others wounded.
    Democrats have coalesced around the idea of starting to remove American troops in the next few months, and increasing numbers of Republicans have been openly critical of the war. The day after the election, Bush expressed an openness to considering fresh ideas on Iraq and announced the departure of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
    Even so, Abizaid said it was too soon to give up on the Iraqis or to announce a timetable for starting a U.S. troop withdrawal.
    ‘‘Hope is not a strategy,’’ said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., a prospective 2008 presidential candidate. Citing the Bush administration’s repeated claims of progress in Iraq, Clinton said she saw no evidence that the Iraqi government was ready to make hard decisions, including taking firm action to disarm or neutralize sectarian militias.
    ‘‘The brutal fact is, it is not happening,’’ she said.
    Asked what the effect would be on sectarian violence if the U.S. began a troop withdrawal in four to six months, as proposed by some Democrats, Abizaid replied, ‘‘I believe it would increase.’’ It also would undermine U.S. efforts to increase Iraqis’ confidence that their own government is capable of assuring their security, he suggested.
    Pressed by Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., on how much time the U.S. and Iraqi governments have to reduce the violence in Baghdad before it spirals beyond control, Abizaid said, ‘‘Four to six months.’’
    The hearing put a spotlight on Democrats’ view that the administration’s Iraq policy is broken, but it produced no new proposals for fixing it.
    In one of the more contentious exchanges, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also a possible presidential candidate in 2008, challenged Abizaid’s analysis of the Iraqi situation and accused him of sticking to a failed course.
    ‘‘I’m of course disappointed that basically you’re advocating the status quo here today, which I think the American people in the last election said that is not an acceptable condition,’’ McCain said.
    In response, Abizaid said he was not arguing for the status quo. He said the key change that is needed now is to place more U.S. troops inside the Iraqi army and police units to train and advise them. Having visited Iraq as recently as this week, Abizaid said he remained optimistic that the Iraqis are capable of overcoming sharp internal differences and creating conditions for stability.
    In a separate session on Capitol Hill, two of the government’s top intelligence officials offered relatively grim assessments of Iraq.
    ‘‘The perception of unchecked violence is creating an atmosphere of fear and hardening sectarianism which is empowering militias and vigilante groups, hastening middle-class exodus and shaking confidence in government and security forces,’’ Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in prepared testimony.
    Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, told a panel that some blame for Iraq’s trouble lies with neighboring Iran.
    ‘‘The Iranian hand is stoking violence and supporting even competing Shiite factions’’ in Iraq, Hayden said.
    Asked about his testimony in August that Iraq could fall into civil war and that the sectarian violence was as bad as he had ever seen it, Abizaid said the situation has improved though it is still troubling.
    ‘‘It’s certainly not as bad as the situation appeared back in August,’’ Abizaid said, adding that he saw growing confidence among Iraqis in their government. ‘‘It’s still at unacceptably high levels,’’ he said of the sect-on-sect violence
    Alluding to Washington’s partisan battles over Iraq, Abizaid said that when he visits the U.S. capital he senses a ‘‘despair’’ that does not exist in Iraq when he visits with Iraqi officials or with American troops and their commanders.
    Abizaid said that adding large numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq was not an option over the long run.
    ‘‘We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect,’’ Abizaid said, apparently referring to McCain’s call for more troops. ‘‘But when you look at the overall American force pool that’s available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the Army and the Marine Corps.’’
    Reflecting Congress’ division of opinion on how to proceed in Iraq, the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said the administration must tell Iraq that U.S. troops will begin leaving in the next half year.
    ‘‘We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves. The only way for Iraqi leaders to squarely face that reality is for President Bush to tell them that the United States will begin a phased redeployment of our forces within four to six months,’’ said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.
    Abizaid counseled against that approach, and Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, took a similar position.
    ‘‘The impact of removal of the forces, I think, will lead us to a greater level of violence perhaps than we’re seeing now,’’ Maples said.
    David Satterfield, the State Department’s senior adviser on Iraq, told the committee that the situation must not reach the point where ordinary Iraqis believe they are better protected by unauthorized militias than by their government.
    ‘‘Hope for a united Iraq will crumble’’ if that happens, he said. ‘‘Such an outcome in Iraq is unacceptable. It would undermine U.S. national interests in Iraq and in the broader region. And it would lead to a humanitarian disaster for the Iraqi people.’’
    Satterfield told the committee that President Bush has ordered all relevant government agencies to offer a new assessment of what more can be done to stabilize Iraq.

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