The commanding general of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq is backing off of a prediction he made two months ago that a substantial number of U.S. forces could be withdrawn from Iraq next year. The general made the statement after a private meeting at the U.S. Capitol with members of the Senate, some of whom were critical of what they see as a long-term U.S. commitment in Iraq.
In late July, General George Casey made this prediction.
"I do believe that if the political process continues to go positively, and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll be able to take some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer of next year," he says.
But asked Wednesday whether he still believes that is true, the commander of multi-national forces in Iraq was more cautious.
"I think right now we're in a little greater period of uncertainty than when I was asked that question back in July and March," General Casey says. "This constitutional referendum, and whether it is supported by the Sunnis to a large degree is something that we just have to watch and see how that comes out. So, until we're done with this political process here, the referendum and the elections in December, I think it's too soon to tell."
General Casey's change of heart reflects a cautious approach by U.S. defense officials in discussing the future of the Iraq conflict. They say coalition forces will win, and the Iraqi people will take control of their own future in political and security terms. But they have been reluctant to put a time frame on that.
The general's boss, the head of the U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, put it this way on Wednesday.
"Clearly, we understand that we've got an enemy that's in for the long term, al-Qaida and the associated groups that are aligned with it," General Abizaid says. "We know that they've got a long-term strategy to fight, to gain ground, to gain influence. And it's very very clear that we've got to have the same sort of long term strategy to contest it. But the keystone to this strategy is helping the people in the region help themselves."
Democratic Party Senator Jack Reed, who attended Wednesday's private briefing, said he sees a change in the administration's approach.
"I think there was a different tone, one of trying to communicate that this is a long-term effort, that there's no quick turning point," Mr. Reed says. "I think now there's a much more realistic, and I think it comes from the military officers, a realistic perception that the nature of these struggles are not short term, but long term. And as a result I think there is perhaps a new realism."
Another Democratic Party senator, Dick Durban, was more harsh in his assessment.
"I have not seen a clear strategy from this administration since the invasion," he says. "We were led to believe by some that this would be relatively simple, straightforward. And I have not seen anything since to indicate that they had a plan or preparation in place for what we really faced on the ground. If anything, it's a long-term strategy, with so many uncertainties that it really is not much of a strategy."
But the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican Senator John Warner, defended the military's revised assessment of the situation in Iraq.
"I find that the Department of Defense quite properly fine tunes every day what we're doing in accordance with the reality and the facts on the ground," Mr. Warner says.
And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said General Casey presented a clear strategy in his briefing for the senators, and accused the Democrats of having prepared their comments in advance.
"General Casey presented his strategy and plan in Iraq, in detail, and has done it before, and is implementing it, and then measured progress against that plan. So the suggestion that there isn't a plan strikes me as more a talking point than a reality," Mr. Rumsfeld says.
Secretary Rumsfeld, the generals and the senators are preparing for a public hearing on Thursday, at which the secretary and the generals will make their reports, and the senators will have another chance to question, criticize or support them.