WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for a political battle next month, a top U.S. commander in Iraq strongly criticized proposals for an early start to troop withdrawals from Iraq, saying yesterday that that would jeopardize the hard battlefield gains for which 71 of his soldiers have died.
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division in central Iraq, said the proposal of Republican Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, to bring about 5,000 troops home before Christmas, would simply hand territory back to the enemy.
"In my battle space right now, if soldiers were to leave ... what will happen is the enemy would come back," Lynch said. "He'd start building the bombs again, he'd start attacking the locals again, and he'd start exporting that violence into Baghdad." It would be, he said, "a giant step backward."
Ten thousand Iraqis in recent weeks have volunteered to help his soldiers keep the peace, Lynch said, and all would be "subject to atrocious acts of violence" if American troops pulled out.
His remarks, made to Pentagon reporters on a video link from Iraq, capped a week during which Warner squared off against President Bush on Iraq war policy, debate swirled around questions of whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should be replaced, and a new U.S. intelligence estimate warned of the dangers of a key part of U.S. military strategy in Iraq.
Those issues will come to a head the week of Sept. 10, when Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, are scheduled to report to the White House and Congress on the state of the war.
But even with Congress and much of official Washington on vacation, the debate has intensified.
About 162,000 troops are deployed to Iraq, among them 80,600 soldiers and Marines assigned to ground and aviation combat brigades. The remainder are support and administrative troops.
The unclassified portion of a new National Intelligence Estimate, released this week, did not address the consequences of major troop reductions scheduled to begin in April, when the five combat brigades of about 28,000 troops that were rushed to Iraq in a "surge" earlier this year start their rotation home after 15 months of combat.
But there is deepening concern among the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington that sustaining even 130,000 troops in Iraq is taking an unacceptably high toll on military readiness.
The chiefs of all the services have expressed concerns that the intense focus on Iraq counterinsurgency operations has seriously eroded their ability to mount other kinds of conventional operations, such as large-scale coordinated air and ground maneuvers, which are no longer practiced.
There are other, more immediate concerns. For example, the Army is so short of fresh troops that it no longer maintains a "ready brigade" of about 3,500 troops on constant alert for emergencies, according to the Army's Forces Command.
For these reasons, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, is readying a proposal to cut the force in Iraq almost in half, the Los Angeles Times reported. That proposal - from an officer who is the president's chief military adviser but who was asked in June to retire - appears to set the Pentagon's generals in direct opposition to Petraeus.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who will take Pace's place as chairman next month, has also expressed concern that current operations are wearing out U.S. forces.
The newly released intelligence analysis also cast doubt on a key aspect of U.S. military strategy in Iraq: encouraging local groups to form their own security organizations, as thousands have done in Anbar province and in the region where Lynch's troops are operating.
In Anbar, which lies west of Baghdad in a string of Euphrates river towns, Marines working with local sheiks have encouraged thousands of youths to join Iraqi army and police units. Under a deal forged by the Marines, the volunteers have been allowed to serve in their own Sunni regions rather than being sent into Shiite provinces.
In Wasit province southeast of Baghdad where Lynch's troops operate, only 1,500 of the 10,000 local Iraqis who volunteered to safeguard their neighborhoods against insurgents have been provisionally accepted into the national Iraqi army and police. The remainder, he said, are wearing road guard vests and working at checkpoints.
Lynch welcomed this "groundswell of enthusiasm," which he termed "amazing." But he acknowledged that there are problems.
"I'm not even pretending that the idea of concerned citizens is being welcomed with open arms by the government of Iraq," Lynch said. The Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, he said, is "concerned about the idea of these members of the Sunni population becoming members of a security force."
But in Washington, the U.S. intelligence report was more pointed, saying that such "bottom-up initiatives" could succeed only if wholeheartedly embraced by the government in Baghdad. Otherwise, the report warned, the formation of local security groups could end up shifting power to the regions, undermining Iraq's central government, and could even "reinvigorate armed opposition" to Baghdad.
Another battle line being drawn in Washington over proposals from some critics of current war policy, prominently among them Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, involves the "downsizing and redeployment" of U.S. forces in Iraq.
In a June 25 Senate speech, Lugar said a small American military force should be limited to counterterrorism and training Iraqi forces, giving the rest of the U.S. military time to recuperate, retrain and rearm.
"Before the next conflict, we have much to do to repair this invaluable instrument," Lugar said. "This repair cannot begin until we move to a more sustainable Iraq policy."
But the new intelligence analysis said such a drastic change of mission for U.S. forces would "erode security gains made so far" in the war.
Lynch, educated at West Point and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied robotics, emphatically denied that the military is worn out.
"There seems to be some concern that the army is at its breaking point," he said yesterday. "I tell you, I don't see it. We're all on multiple deployments. We all miss our families terribly. We're all working through difficult issues over here.
"But everywhere I go, when I visit soldiers at patrol base, I'm re-enlisting a soldier."