WASHINGTON (AFP) -Under mounting political pressure at home, the US military is betting all that a summer-long campaign against Al-Qaeda in Iraq will leave it in a position to begin drawing down US troops by early next year.
General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, has only three months to bring about a major change in security conditions, a goal that has eluded all his predecessors.
Should he fall short, analysts say, an angry Congress is almost certain to act to take matters into its own hands.
“Let’s not forget that there is a lot of power in the Congress on these kinds of positions,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. “They do potentially have the power to end this war.”
But Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the number two commander in Iraq, on Friday outlined the military’s hopes for the campaign now underway to uproot Al-Qaeda from sanctuaries in and around Baghdad.
By August 1, US and Iraqi forces should have completed clearing insurgent havens north, south and west of the city, cutting off the stream of devastating bombings that inflamed sectarian violence, he said.
Success will then depend on whether Iraqi forces are capable of holding those newly won areas, he said. If they can, US troops may be able to start leaving the country early next year.
“I think, by the spring or earlier, they (the Iraqis) will be ready to take on a larger portion of their security, which means, I think, potentially, we could have a decision to reduce our forces,” he said.
Currently, there are 156,000 US troops in Iraq.
Adding to his optimism is a reversal of fortunes in western al-Anbar province, a seat of the insurgency where tribal sheiks have joined with US forces against Al-Qaeda.
Written off as virtually lost a year ago, the province could be brought under Iraqi security control as early as this fall, the general said.
If Odierno’s timetable holds, Petraeus will be well positioned in September when he must report to Congress on whether the surge is working, and recommend future courses of action.
Some analysts believe President George W. Bush will want to extend the beefed up US presence through the spring, when the first surge units rotate home.
But O’Hanlon said, “You would hope and you would expect that a surge-like strategy at some point could be maintained with a higher level of Iraqi forces.”
“So though the strategy would remain essentially the same, our presence could decrease at least modestly, let’s say to 140,000 in early ’08, to 125,000 by the summer, and 100,000 by the time George Bush leaves the White House (in January 2009),” he said.
But combat is unpredictable and the Iraqi insurgency has bounced back stronger than ever from earlier campaigns. Petraeus and other US military leaders have been more cautious than Odierno about where they will be in September.
Moreover, the surge has been costly.
The 120 US troops killed in May were the most to die in a single month since US and Iraqi forces stormed the insurgent-held city of Fallujah in November 2004. At least 60 have been killed this month.
Also working against the plan is the Iraqi government’s failure to take any steps to foster reconciliation with Sunnis, forcing the United States to strike side deals and alliances with former insurgents.
Gates this week defended the alliances as “really the pathway forward.”
Will it be enough to buy more time with the Democratic-controlled Congress where moves are afoot to force a US withdrawal?
“If moderate Republicans give Democrats both the added votes and the political cover to end this war in the course of fiscal 2008, it could happen,” said O’Hanlon.
“What they might do, instead of saying ‘End the war and bring all the troops home’, is say ‘Change the mission and transition to the new mission and by a given date you’ve got to be down 75,000 troops.'”