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Iraq: Officials On Both Sides Say It's Too Early to Plan Exit Strategy For U.S. Forces

U.S. soldiers in Iraq (file photo) Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawar says the departure of U.S.-led multinational forces from Iraq is not likely by the end of this year. But he says a reduction of foreign troop numbers could start by then. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also says that, despite the turnout of millions of voters in 30 January elections, it is still too early to speak about an exit strategy for the more than 170,000 foreign troops in Iraq. Analysts tend to agree.

Prague, 2 February (RFE/RL) -- The Iraqi elections have led to calls by some U.S. lawmakers for the drafting of an exit strategy for the withdrawal of U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq.

Iraqi interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir says some foreign troops could be sent home late in the year. But he says it will take longer before Iraqi security forces are able to control the situation well enough for the withdrawal of all foreign troops.

"If the plan of training and rehabilitation of [Iraqi] security forces and the Iraqi army goes as planned," al-Yawir said, "I think that at the end of this year we will assist in the beginning of the reduction of [U.S.-led multinational] forces -- not their [complete] departure, but the beginning of their reduction. Also because these forces want to go home. They do not want to stay in Iraq until the end of time. We don't want these forces to stay in Iraq until the end of time either."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the 30 January elections as a turning point for the U.S. presence in Iraq. Speaking ahead of a weeklong visit to Europe and the Middle East, Rice said the ballot has created a new opportunity for the international community to rally around the Iraqi people.

But Rice rejected the suggestions by congressional critics of the war that planning should start now for the withdrawal of more than 150,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq.

She says it is still too early, in her words, "to talk in terms of exit strategies." For now, Rice says the goal is to advise and train Iraqi military units so they eventually can take charge of their own security.

"They are, of course, still young in their development -- the Iraqi security forces. But by all reports, they are doing very well. And they are supporting their own democratic process," Rice said. "We have to get to a point where this is Iraq's fight for Iraq -- the fight of Iraqis for their own freedom."
"We have to get to a point where this is Iraq's fight for Iraq -- the fight of Iraqis for their own freedom." -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Experts tend to agree. Toby Dodge, a specialist on Iraq at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL today that multinational forces will be needed in Iraq for at least another five years -- despite the fact that the very presence of U.S. troops may make it easier for insurgents to recruit more fighters.

"It's a very difficult situation, because without foreign troops, the country would descend even quicker into greater chaos and violence," Dodge said. "So although foreign troops are resented by the vast majority of the population, I think pulling them out simply isn't a logical solution for the next five or six years. So I think foreign troops are a necessity, even though they are part of the problem."

Analyst Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, doesn't believe that U.S. President George W. Bush can say that, as a result of Sunday's vote, the United States is going to be able to leave in a year or two, or even three or four.

"But he is going to be able to say, 'The vote on Sunday proves that my policy is the right policy. And we're on the right course. And we've got to continue on this course.'" Kalb said. "And between the lines [Bush's message] will be: 'Any of you out there who disagree with me -- you're wrong, and I'm right.'"

Dodge says analysts should be careful not to make overreaching assumptions about the impact of the 30 January vote based on the incomplete and anecdotal turnout estimates that have been provided so far by Iraqi electoral officials. In particular, he offers a caveat about the situation in Sunni-dominated cities where turnout appears to have been small.

"You've clearly had very large turnout in the south and north of the country, which could, if used correctly, deliver a moral mandate to the government," Dodge said. "But the new Iraqi government has to realize that it cannot beat the insurgency militarily and has to reach out from this new moral position that they have to negotiate -- to bring that section of the community that is alienated, and decided not to vote, into the political makeup of the new government."

Speaking about an ongoing security vacuum in the so-called Sunni Triangle of northwestern Iraq, Dodge says the situation is likely to remain volatile for the immediate future.

"You have a vocal and strategically important section of the population who are deeply alienated from the process and who are in an area that no one controls," he said. "The [Iraqi] state doesn't control the northwest. The state doesn't control Baghdad. U.S. forces don't control the northwest or Baghdad. And the insurgency isn't strong enough or coherent enough to control it either. So you have a glaring security vacuum."

"The New York Times" reports today that U.S. military commanders plan to reassign thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq to advise and train Iraqi military forces. That move is being described as a short-term gamble -- easing up on offensives against insurgents in order to advance on the long-term goal of putting Iraqis in charge of their own security.