WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that no decision has been made on decreasing American troops in Iraq, contradicting military officials who have publicly suggested in the past five months that U.S. troops could begin leaving Iraq as soon as spring.
One top American general told reporters in June that he expected upward of 20,000 U.S. troops to come home from Iraq in spring, while the senior ground commander in Iraq said three weeks ago that "fairly substantial" troop reductions were likely after the December Iraqi elections. And the commander of all U.S. forces in the region told Congress in March that Iraqi forces could take the lead in the counterinsurgency fight in 2005, though he later amended that to next spring or summer. This week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said "nobody knows" when the Iraqis can take the lead.
Although officials gave some of these projections in news conferences and other public forums, the president yesterday referred to the reports of U.S. troop reductions as "speculation and rumors."
"The position of this government is clear that, as Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down," the president told reporters at his Texas ranch yesterday, after meetings with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"I've said all along, we'd like to get our troops home as soon as possible," Bush said. "As soon as possible is conditions-based."
Some defense analysts said yesterday they believe the contradictory statements stem from a Pentagon need to see a reduction in its overstretched forces and Bush's reluctance to send a cut-and-run message to the insurgents.
Bush has been under pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to begin drawing down U.S. forces. Recent polls show that support for his handling of the Iraq war is fast eroding amid rising U.S. casualties, overstretched American forces, Army and National Guard recruiting troubles and $5 billion-per-month war costs.
But the president stressed that too few Iraqi troops are ready to handle the security situation on their own. Pulling out U.S. troops, he said, would "send a terrible signal to the enemy" and also "betray the Iraqis."
Told that the projections of U.S. troop withdrawals came from senior officers, Bush said: "I think there were rumors. I think there's speculation." He said a joint Iraqi-U.S. commission has been created to evaluate the situation and determine the number of troops needed.
"A decision finally will be made by me," he said.
Although Bush noted that before January's election in Iraq, U.S. troops grew to 160,000 to provide extra security for the vote, he said no decision has been made about whether to repeat such an increase in forces.
He said the "main condition" for U.S. troop withdrawal is whether "the Iraqis will be able to take the fight to the enemy."
Bush was speaking just a few miles from where Cindy Sheehan of California, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq last year, has camped out to urge the president to bring troops home now.
"I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan," Bush said. "She feels strongly about her position. She has every right in the world to say what she believes.
"I also have heard the voices of those saying, 'Pull out now,'" Bush said. "And I've thought about their cry and their sincere desire to reduce the loss of life by pulling our troops out. I just strongly disagree."
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said the seeming contradictions between Bush and his military leaders underscore conflicting concerns within the administration: a desire by the Pentagon to draw down troops as soon as possible, against the president's need to send a supportive message to Iraqi politicians.
But the president's position also risks an open-ended troop commitment that leaves Iraqi politicians with little incentive to move forward in building a broad-based government, he added.
A "clear flaw" in the president's approach, Thompson said, is that it allows Iraqis "to determine when Americans will leave and in what numbers." While Bush may see a "national mission" in staying the course in Iraq, Thompson said, "the public seems less and less convinced a positive outcome is possible."
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said that Bush's statement reflects the fine line he is walking. The president doesn't want to embolden the insurgency by withdrawing troops, he said. At the same time, Bush hopes to avoid signaling an endless commitment there or bolstering an image of America as an occupier.
"They pull you in opposite directions," said O'Hanlon.
Bush's comments yesterday come three weeks after Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Iraq, said that he expected "fairly substantial reductions" in U.S. forces next year, after the December Iraqi elections. In June, Casey's deputy, Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, echoed earlier statements by the general about an anticipated post-election troop draw-down, and estimated the reduction would amount to four or five brigades, as many as 20,000 U.S. troops out of the 138,000 now in Iraq.
The conflicting predictions also punctuate the friction between rhetoric and reality.
Central to the reduction of troops is the ability of the Iraqi security forces to function on their own. Now estimated at 178,000 police, soldiers and border guards, they are at various levels of training and expertise. But military officials say that only two or three Iraqi army battalions - each including some 700 soldiers - have the ability to operate without U.S. help. Twenty or more battalions need some U.S. assistance, and 70 or 80 other battalions have even less capability.
"Now, there's not many that can stand alone yet," Bush acknowledged yesterday, "but there are a lot more that have gone from raw recruit stage to plenty capable." Increasing numbers of U.S. soldiers are embedding with Iraqi units to provide guidance, and a more stringent review has begun to determine the level of competency of Iraqi units, officials said.
Reasons for delay
One U.S. official in Iraq, who requested anonymity, said part of the reason for the delay stems from the American decision in the spring of 2003 to disband the 400,000-soldier Iraqi Army. "They're starting an army from scratch," the official said, noting that senior Iraqi officers with experience worked for Saddam Hussein and are therefore barred from the new force.
Also, almost none of the new Iraqi units have the ability to "sustain" themselves in the field, lacking everything from transportation to payroll clerks, from mess halls to quartermasters. And there is still no effective "command and control" apparatus that extends from soldiers to senior officers to civilian defense officials at the Ministry of Defense, said American officials at the Pentagon and in Iraq.
These logistic and command hurdles, they said, will require additional time and money and continued political development through the creation of a new Iraqi national government.
Some U.S. military officials clearly expected the Iraqi forces to be ready to handle the insurgency fight earlier.
In March, Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. general in the Persian Gulf region, told Congress that the goal was to have Iraqi forces take the lead in fighting the counterinsurgency "in the majority of the country" by the end of the year. "And I think in 2005 they'll take on the majority of tasks that need to be done," he said.
Then in June, Abizaid said in an interview with CBS-TV, "I would say that it's clear to me that by the middle of - the early part of spring next year to the summer of next year, you'll see Iraqi security forces move into the lead in the counterinsurgency fight."
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was pressed this week on when the Iraqi forces would be able to stand on their own. "It's going to be progressive. ... It's going to take time," Myers told reporters.
Both Myers and Rumsfeld said the ability of Iraqis to assume control of their own security depended on the training of the Iraqi forces, political and economic development in Iraq, the strength of the insurgency, and Iran and Syria, whose borders are leaking foreign fighters and weapons.
Pressed on a time line of one, two or three years, Myers said: "Nobody knows. It's event-driven."
ON THE REDUCTION OF U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ
* June 21
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, ground commander for Multi-National Corps, Iraq: "I suspect we would probably draw down ... after the (December) elections, because Iraqi security forces are more capable." He estimated the numbers withdrawn would be about four or five brigades, or upward of 20,000 American troops.
* July 27
U.S. Gen George W. Casey Jr., top U.S. commander in Iraq: The United States will be able to make "fairly substantial reductions" in the number of troops serving in Iraq by the middle of next year if the country's political process remains on track.
* August 11
President Bush, "As for troops, no decision has been made yet on increasing troops or decreasing troops. I know there's a lot of speculation and rumor about that.
ON IRAQI SECURITY FORCES TAKING THE LEAD
* March 1
Gen John Abizaid, commander, U.S. Central Command, before the Senate Armed Service Committee; "I think in 2005 they'll take on the majority of tasks that need to be done."
* June 26
Abizaid, on CBS-TV's Face the Nation: "It's clear to me that by the middle of -- the early part of spring next year to the summer of next year, you'll see Iraqi security forces move into the lead in the counterinsurgency fight."
* Aug. 9
Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff. On projections that the Iraqis could take the lead sometime in 2005 he said, "Nobody knows. It's event-driven,"
* August 11
President Bush, "There's not many that can stand alone yet, buut there are a lot more that have gone from raw recruit stage to plenty capable ... and my answer to you is that we are making progress."
SOURCE: EDWARD BREMNER, DANA OPPENHEIM : SUN STAFF