Senators Urge Troop Pullout, Limited Mission in Iraq

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Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island discusses the Defense Authorization Bill. He and Michigan Sen. Carl Levin have proposed an amendment that calls on President Bush to begin pulling out troops in 120 days and maintain a limited mission by April 2008. Reed spoke with Renee Montagne.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We turn now to Senator Jack Reed. The Rhode Island Democrat just completed his 10th trip to Iraq. He returns to the Senate as it takes up debate on amendments to a defense spending bill. Along with fellow Democrat Carl Levin, Senator Reed is sponsoring one of those amendments. It calls for the reduction of U.S. troops in Iraq and a limited military presence there by the spring of 2008.

Senator Reed joins us now on the line. Good morning.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, Senator Reed, should it pass, your proposal calls for a reduction and redeployment of U.S. troops in Iraq to begin within four months. And that's a pretty short timeframe. How many troops would stay and what would they be doing?

Sen. REED: Well, the legislation significantly initiates a point at which American troops would begin to reduce, but it doesn't specify the precise timing or the precise number of troops that will begin the withdrawal. It does, though, suggest - in fact, it would require a transition by April 2008 to three distinct missions.

First would be force protection, which is necessary for our forces. Second, counter-terrorism, going after those al-Qaida elements and other international terrorists. And three, continue to train Iraqi security forces so they can maintain the security of their own nation.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk briefly about counter-terrorism efforts, one of the three you just talked about. We just heard John Burnett say that al-Qaida was the minority in terms of the fighters but the best trained. How do you mount a different fight against terrorism in Iraq when al-Qaida can be found throughout Iraq and in Baghdad?

Sen. REED: Well, we have, I think, to continue to put the pressure on al-Qaida and not just within Iraq and with - but throughout the world. And you have to develop the intelligence, target their locations, target their methods of operation. We use primarily our special operations forces to go after them and to continue to put the pressure on.

What is complicated is, and what your reporter indicated is, that all the violence is not attributed directly or solely to al-Qaida. There is the other Shia militias. There are Sunni - in the form of Baathist elements that are not particularly related with al-Qaida but they're still actively contesting our presence and the presence of the Iraqi government.

But the key here is to go after those terrorists who are not part of the struggle for, essentially for Iraqi control but they're more in line with the al-Qaida international terrorists. And that's done principally by intelligence and special operations.

MONTAGNE: Now, when you were in Iraq this past time, you spoke with Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He's had 30 years experience in the Middle East. He warned that things could get much worse in Iraq if the U.S. scales back substantially or quickly. How do you ensure that withdrawing or redeploying doesn't further destabilize Iraq and the region?

Sen. REED: Well, what we do is important and how we do it is just as important. That's why these warnings about a precipitous withdrawal and immediate, instantaneous withdrawal I think have some resonance. But the proposal that we're suggesting calls for a careful and phased redeployment with continuing missions. And I think that is the best way to deal with the issue of reducing our forces and also focuses on those areas, which, in the long run, I think are most complementary to what the Iraqis are doing, and two, can be sustained. And sustained in two significant ways. One, sustained because of our overall manpower constraints. There is no way that as of next spring we can maintain 160,000 troops on the ground unless we adopt some draconian personnel policies. Long, long tours, not 14 to 15 months but 18 months…

MONTAGNE: Senator?

Sen. REED: Yes?

MONTAGNE: Sorry, we're running out of time. And the second way - very quickly.

Sen. REED: And the second way, I think, is to sustain the public support, which is eroding rapidly. I think the American public needs a new direction. And that new direction I hope this is embodied by our legislation.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. Senator Jack Reed is a member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee. He just returned this week from his 10th visit to Iraq. And you can read about some of the Senate amendments on Iraq at npr.org.

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