WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The United States could pull the bulk of its combat forces out of Iraq by early 2008 if Iraqis take significant steps toward reconciliation, the top U.S. operational commander in the country said on Friday.
The Iraq Study Group, a high-level bipartisan panel, has suggested withdrawing all U.S. combat brigades by the first quarter of 2008, except for those needed to protect U.S. troops remaining as military advisers and in other roles. “I think that’s possible if in fact we have interim steps that are agreed upon with timelines that basically move us toward reconciliation,” said Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, head of the U.S-led Multi-National Corps Iraq.
The United States has around 135,000 troops in Iraq. They are battling insurgents and al Qaeda militants but commanders say the most serious security problem is sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.
Chiarelli, coming to the end of his second one-year tour in Iraq, told reporters at the Pentagon by videolink that he believed reconciliation could happen, but would take time. “If we set up a series of goals, goals that are tied to dates, of certain critical things that have to be done to make all the Iraqi people believe that this is a government of national unity, that we could regain their confidence … anything is possible,” he said.
Chiarelli made his comments as U.S. President George W. Bush considers major strategy changes due to unrelenting high levels of violence in Baghdad and other parts of the country.
The Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by Bush family confidant James Baker, suggested switching the main U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to training Iraqi forces. It recommended a big increase in U.S. trainers embedded with Iraqi units.
The U.S. military is already working on plans to boost the number of embedded trainers and Chiarelli said that could happen rapidly, largely by calling on troops already in Iraq. “I think we can do it a lot faster than many people would believe,” he said. “There may be a requirement for some additional trainers in very specific areas but I think a majority… could come from in-country.”
Chiarelli did not mention figures but the Iraq Study Group has suggested increasing the number of embedded U.S. trainers to 10,000 to 20,000 from 3,000 to 4,000 now.
Chiarelli said he believed the United States had done all it could to stabilize Iraq militarily and progress was most needed on political and economic fronts. “Militarily, I can say without a doubt, that we are winning. We’ve never been defeated on any battlefield … in this conflict, nor will be be,” he said.
“Success does not rest on what we do alone. The real key is for the Iraqis to win this thing,” he added.
Robert Gates, the man chosen to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary, said this week the United States was not winning in Iraq, although he stressed he was talking about the overall stabilization effort, not the military component.