WASHINGTON -- As a new U.S. intelligence report cast strong doubt yesterday on the prospects of the al-Maliki government in Iraq, one of the most respected Republicans in Congress on military matters called on President Bush to begin withdrawing troops by Christmas.
Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, just back from his latest visit to Iraq, cited the briefings he received in Baghdad, as well as the just-released National Intelligence Estimate, in calling for a troop reduction this year.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government "have let our troops down," said Warner, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy secretary. Initiating a withdrawal would send "a decisive signal" to Iraq that U.S. support is limited, he said.
In carefully worded comments, Warner listed several statements from Bush and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker indicating that Iraq does not have a blank check from the U.S. government. Warner said the purpose of his proposal was "to put a good, strong, clear bite" on such statements.
He said he would leave it to Bush to decide specifics but suggested an initial drawdown of perhaps 5,000 troops.
Warner maintained that he was not looking to "pull the rug out from under our troops as they are gaining momentum," and he urged that the withdrawal be done incrementally to evaluate whether it was harming the modest headway on security.
"We simply cannot, as a nation, stand and put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action," Warner said. He noted that the new intelligence report had concluded that the United States should not expect any major reconciliation within the Iraqi government over the next six to 12 months.
The intelligence estimate, made public by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell in advance of next month's debate in Washington over the future U.S. military role in Iraq, offered a dark forecast.
"Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively," and the Baghdad government will become "more precarious" over the next year, it concluded.
At a briefing for reporters, intelligence analysts said that tensions between al-Maliki and other factional leaders have reached a level that will only worsen the rifts that have developed.
In recent months, the Shiite prime minister has contended with multiple boycotts, including from a Shiite faction led by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Almost half of al-Maliki's Cabinet has disbanded, and leaders of other factions have accused him of advocating only for narrow sectarian interests.
"The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decision-making, and increased Maliki's vulnerability to alternative coalitions," the report stated.
Increasing governmental instability is anticipated despite modest improvements predicted for the security environment in Iraq, the report said. It found that the rate of increase in violence has slowed but "the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high."
In Texas, where Bush is vacationing at his Crawford ranch, Warner's announcement drew a chilly response.
"We appreciate Senator Warner's comments," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "It's important that we wait right now to hear from the commanders on the ground about the way ahead."
Johndroe reiterated Bush's opposition to a "timetable for withdrawal."
The Bush spokesman acknowledged that al-Maliki's government is not making as much progress as those in Washington would like.
"This is a government that is learning - frankly, learning how to govern," Johndroe said.
But he said the intelligence assessment showed that the troop buildup "has begun to slow the rapidly increasing violence and patterns of that violence we have been seeing in Iraq." That shift, he said, "is a necessary precondition to the stability and increased political reconciliation that we all seek."
Steven Simon, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said U.S. hopes for national reconciliation in Iraq are built on a false assumption that the country's warring factions are ready to settle their differences.
The Shiites, he said, expect justice for their heinous treatment under Saddam Hussein before they would consider sharing power with other groups. Meanwhile, the Sunnis see reconciliation as restoring them to power, and the Kurds see it as consolidating their autonomy.
Simon also said the new intelligence report had exposed the "flawed premise" of Bush's strategy: that the security gains made by adding 28,000 U.S. troops would lay the groundwork for political negotiations.
From a military perspective, analysts said, Warner's call for the withdrawal of as many as 5,000 troops would have virtually no impact on U.S. combat operations in Iraq.
Roughly half of the U.S. military personnel in Iraq serve in Army and Marine ground combat brigades or combat aviation units. The remainder work in support and administrative jobs. While seven-day workweeks are common, the support force could be tightened, officers there acknowledge.
"You spread the cuts across the entire complement of personnel" and withdrawing 5,000 troops "is quite doable," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan defense think tank in Washington. "But what would it prove? Token reductions as a form of signaling or posturing for the region is likely to be dismissed, because it simply is further indication of how divided and uncertain the U.S. leadership is."
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the deputy U.S. commander in Iraq, has already laid out a plan to begin withdrawing one combat brigade per month, about 3,500 troops, beginning in April.