Iraqi leaders meeting in Cairo Monday called for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, a demand that coincides with similar calls from some members of the U.S. congress. But U.S. officials continue to say any such withdrawal will be based on conditions in Iraq, not on political considerations or artificial timetables.
Speaking from Iraq, the second ranking U.S. commander in the country, Lieutenant General John Vines, said the statement issued in Cairo will not affect his recommendation on U.S. troop levels after the Iraqi elections scheduled for December 15.
"I'm sure that recommendation will be considered by our policy makers," said General Vines. "It will not be part of my calculus. My calculation will be based primarily on the threat on the ground, the capability of the Iraqi security forces and the ability of the Iraqi government to sustain them."
But Defense Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita says political concerns will not factor into the decision even at the Washington policy level - whether those concerns come from Iraqi politicians or members of the U.S. congress.
"There are a lot of factors that will go into determining force levels in Iraq that have to do with conditions in Iraq, not conditions in Washington, DC," said Lawrence DiRita. "There's from Iraqi leaders and from commanders, a great sensitivity to this tension that the secretary talks about between minimizing or keeping our footprint as low as necessary to help the Iraqi security forces emerge as the most capable security force in that country, versus the presence that many believe would help maintain control of areas of the country that need to be controlled."
Mr. DiRita rejected calls by various members of congress for either an increase or a decrease in U.S. troop levels, saying commanders work hard to find the right number to accomplish the mission without creating additional resentment among Iraqis.
Currently, there are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That number is expected to come back down to the previous level of 138,000 after the election. The question of when there might be further reductions is on the minds of politicians and military commanders alike. But General Vines says a quick withdrawal, as proposed by some members of congress, would be a bad idea.
"Currently, although Iraqi security forces are able to conduct operations in a large portion of their area with only limited coalition support, they do require our support at this time," he said. "That support will be increasingly less over a period of time, but a precipitous pullout, I believe, would be destabilizing."
U.S. officials acknowledge there could be significant reductions of U.S. and other coalition troops in Iraq starting sometime next year. But they insist that will only happen if conditions warrant, not in response to any Iraqi or American political pressure.