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Debate Intensifies Over US Troop Withdrawals from Iraq

Recent elections for the U.S. Congress and continuing bloodshed in Baghdad have renewed debate over whether there should be a timetable for American-led coalition forces to leave Iraq. Many critics of the war say the time has come to accelerate the turnover of the country to Iraqi security forces, but some analysts agree with the Bush administration view that a rapid withdrawal would bring disaster. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has more in this background report from Washington.

During a recent forum before the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based research organization, regional specialists debated the question of how and when U.S. forces should begin leaving Iraq.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says it is time to begin a measured but steady withdrawal.

"On the military component I would stress two words - phased and gradual," he said. "I think we are in for a phased and gradual deployment over a multi-year period. A phased approach would enable the U.S. to continue training the Iraqi forces and provide crucial support to Iraqis. But, importantly, sending notice that we are not going to stay there forever would send a signal to Iraqis and countries in the Middle East region that the United States does not intend to occupy Iraq indefinitely."

High-ranking Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, who will be in the majority when the new session begins in January, agree with that view. They say that a drawdown of U.S. troops will pressure Iraqi forces to take a larger role in security operations.

But the Bush administration says now is not the time to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, told a U.S. congressional committee Wednesday that the number of U.S. troops might even need to be increased in the short term to speed up the training of Iraqi security forces.

General Abizaid says setting a timetable for U.S. soldiers to leave Iraq would be counterproductive.

"At this stage in the campaign, we'll need flexibility to manage our force and to help manage the Iraqi force," he said. "Force caps and specific timetables limit that flexibility."

Ambassador David Satterfield is a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the State Department's coordinator for Iraq.

Satterfield, who has spent the last 18 months in Baghdad, says the Bush administration opposes timetables, but is flexible regarding its Iraq strategy.

"Transitioning means recognizing strategic dynamics in the region, in Iraq, adjusting and adapting to those dynamics," he said. "It does not mean a change in course with respect to the fundamental goals we have: a stable, peaceful, democratic Iraq, an ally in the war against terror, at peace at home and at peace in the region. It does mean a constant reexamination of the tactics and the strategies to get us to that point along with our Iraqi partners."

Administration officials argue that setting timetables for troop withdrawals will embolden insurgents and terrorists in Iraq.

Ambassador Satterfield says the fighting in Iraq's western Anbar province has evolved from a conflict with Iraqi insurgents to a battle with al-Qaida terrorists.

"There is very little question anymore that the whip hand [dominant position] in Anbar is held by al-Qaida, not the Baathists," he said. "That is an extremely threatening development because I don't have to spell out the consequences of any region of Iraq becoming an al-Qaida controlled, government-excluded, free zone where al-Qaida could develop its resources, not just to expand its ability to challenge in Iraq, but to challenge outside Iraq as well."

Qubad Talabany is the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the United States and is the son of Iraq's President Jalal Talabani.

He says it is clear President Bush is under domestic pressure to change policy in Iraq, but he says timetables will hurt the country's effort to become peaceful and democratic.

"Iraq is a traumatized country, traumatized by its horrific past and, at times, by its faltering present," he said. "Iraq has been held to political timetables that have been convenient to Washington for too long. It is not fair on Iraqis, and in my opinion, won't yield the right results. While we understand that the patience of the American public is dwindling, we warn that pushing things to move within the confines of an unworkable or unrealistic timetable will only lead to failure and aid our enemies."

In an effort to find a strategy that supports the Iraqi government and satisfies critics who want a rapid U.S. troop withdrawal, the Bush administration says it will consider the recommendations of a high-level policy review led by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. The independent panel is expected to make its recommendations next month. The administration is also undertaking a separate Iraq policy review of its own.