WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The United States could start withdrawing forces from Iraq this year if the additional troops being sent to Baghdad reduce violence significantly, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday. “If these operations actually work you could begin to see a lightening of the U.S. footprint both in Baghdad and Iraq itself,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Defending President George W. Bush’s plan against intense opposition from the new Democratic-led Congress for the second day in a row, Gates cautioned that adding more U.S. forces would not end sectarian violence in Iraq. But if it lowers the violence “significantly” and the Iraqi government fulfills its promises, “then you could have a situation later this year where you could actually begin withdrawing,” he said.
Bush vowed in an interview with CBS to press ahead with his plan to send an additional 21,000 troops to Iraq, regardless of whether Congress tries to impede him. The United States has about 130,000 troops in Iraq now. “I fully understand (Congress) could try to stop me from doing it,” Bush said. “But I made my decision — we’re going forward.”
At the hearing on Capitol Hill, senators said Bush’s strategy depended far too heavily on the Iraqi government keeping promises it had failed to keep before.
“Look at the track record of the Iraqi government in meeting some of its past benchmarks and promises,” said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and Armed Services Committee chairman. He listed commitments not kept, such as a pledge from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that the government would disband the sectarian militias plaguing Baghdad and that Iraq would take over security for all its provinces by the end of 2006.
Congress has few options for halting Bush’s strategy short of cutting off funds, a move most lawmakers appear unwilling to make. But White House spokesman Tony Snow said that avenue was closed at least for now.
“Funding for the forces and to dispatch them to the region, it’s already in the budget. So we’re going to proceed with those plans,” he said.
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. John Murtha, who heads a House panel overseeing defense spending, said he would try to attach restrictions to a $100 billion “emergency” request for new war money that Bush will request in February.
Those restrictions could include a prohibition on spending money for the additional troops, Murtha said. They could also include immediately closing Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and the Guantanamo Bay detention center for terrorism suspects at a U.S. base in Cuba.
Democratic congressional leaders hope to pass a bipartisan resolution opposing the troop increase plan, pressing the president to revise his policy. The Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, intends to bring such a resolution to the Senate floor by the end of next week.
Gates admitted Iraq’s poor performance in meeting its goals. “The record of fulfilling their commitments is not an encouraging one,” he said. “But I will say this. They really do seem to be eager to take control of this security.”
Senators also questioned whether military commanders believed in Bush’s plan, given their previous rejection of calls for more troops. The top U.S. general in the Middle East, Army Gen. John Abizaid, opposed an increase two months ago.
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said both he and Abizaid supported the Bush plan, and that it provided enough troops to establish security.
Pace too premised his confidence on an expectation the Iraqi government would deliver on its commitments, especially a promise to prohibit Iraqi politicians from interfering in military action against sectarian militias.