U.S. to 'Pause' Troop Drawdown in Iraq

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it "makes sense" to temporarily halt the gradual reduction of forces in Iraq. The Washington Post's Ann Scott Tyson reports.

ALISON STEWART, host:

As we like to do on Fridays, we're going to get you caught up on the week in Iraq.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: At least three people were killed and 17 wounded in a suicide bomb attack on worshippers leaving a Shiite mosque in the city of Talifar today. One bomber threw grenades at worshippers before blowing himself up. Police shot at the second bomber, whose explosives went off but didn't cause any casualties.

RACHEL MARTIN: Earlier this week, a psychiatric hospital administrator was arrested for allegedly recruiting two unsuspecting mentally ill women to carry out suicide bombings on a Baghdad pet market. That bombing killed 99 people on February 1st. The man is also suspected of supplying information about other patients to al-Qaida for recruitment as suicide bombers.

STEWART: A British journalist working for CBS News, kidnapped from his hotel on Sunday, is still being held as of today. His Iraqi interpreter was set free on Wednesday.

MARTIN: On the political front, the Iraqi parliament approved a $48 billion budget and two key bills - one a limited amnesty law that could free thousands of prisoners. The other sets an October 1 date for provincial elections.

STEWART: Now Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to become the first Iranian leader to set foot on Iraqi soil, his visit to the country on March 2nd for two days. He'll be there to discuss, quote, "bilateral relations and joint projects."

MARTIN: Two other visitors to Iraq this week, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, made his first trip to promote the building of a new legal system there that respects Iraqi cultural norms and uses U.S. principles of due process and rule of law.

STEWART: And in a surprise trip, Defense Secretary Robert Gates returned to Baghdad and met with General David Petraeus, the current commander in charge of U.S. forces in Iraq. Afterward, Gates made an announcement about troops that has been greeted with mixed reaction. He said he wants to pause the set plans to withdraw U.S. troops this summer.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): I think that the notion of a brief period of consolidation and evaluation probably does make sense.

STEWART: Let's break out that last item with Ann Scott Tyson. She's a Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post. So Ann, let's get some base information here. The troops that were to have been drawn down this summer, how do they relate to the surge of troops?

Ms. ANN SCOTT TYSON (Pentagon Reporter, Washington Post): Well, the quantity is the same. The same quantity of troops, although not the exact same units, will be taken out of Iraq - that's about five Army combat brigades - as were put in, ordered in, to ramp-up the numbers by President Bush last year.

That process is supposed to be completed by July. So that is the draw-down of the surge level of forces that everyone knew was inevitable, essentially because the Army would have difficulty sustaining it.

STEWART: Well, let's talk about two points you've brought up there. Secretary Gates made a case in an editorial in your paper, it was co-authored by Secretary Rice, writing that when taking into account the presence and the composition and the mission of the troops, it quote, "Makes sense to temporarily halt the draw-down." What led to this conclusion?

Ms. TYSON: Well, I think that there is, you know - the commanders in Iraq - and I think a lot of this comes from the assessment of the top commander there, General Petraeus - believe strongly that Iraq is still a very fragile situation. They have made some gains in security, fairly clear gains, but those are based on a weak foundation because the government hasn't come through with strong reconciliation steps.

For example, the emergence of the Sunni volunteers who have helped secure neighborhoods, their status remains highly uncertain. And that was a big factor in the turnaround in security.

So at the same time, when, you know, a lot of the security gains have been enhanced by the presence of additional U.S. forces that have gone into these bases in small neighborhoods and just been a lot more present to help protect the population. So when you take that out of the equation, there's some uncertainty as to what will happen.

Meanwhile, you still have an active insurgency going on, most notably with the increased violence in Northern Iraq.

STEWART: So those who oppose the move, however, cite these 15-month-long deployments and basic fatigue on the U.S. military and believe that in the big picture, keeping troops there is just not great for the United States. Did the secretary address this at all?

Ms. TYSON: Well, the secretary has also said that he seeks to reduce the length of the Army tours from the current 15 months down to 12 months as soon as possible. Clearly, a pause in the forces could impact how soon that can happen. There's a simple math between, you know, how many forces you have to deploy, who needs to rotate in and how long their tours have to be to maintain this continuous level there.

A lot will depend on how long the pause is, whether that takes them away from the - you know, how far that prevents them from reducing the length of the tours. And yes, there are those considerations among, for example, the head of the Army and the Marine Corps. They see demands potentially in other parts of the world. They see the stress on the force, the difficulty in recruiting and, you know, refurbishing the equipment and so forth and giving the troops a rest. So there are definite tensions involved with a decision like this.

STEWART: We're talking to Ann Scott Tyson, who's a Pentagon reporter for the Washington Post.

Now on the local level, Iraq's national security advisor disagrees with Secretary Gates and said, you know, we'd like to see the U.S. forces drawn down to below 100,000 by the end of 2008.

First of all, does this advisor, does his word really mean anything, and is his opinion widely held in the country?

Ms. TYSON: I don't think he's, you know, particularly influential. I mean, certainly, he does hold an important position. I don't think an opinion like that is decisive or determines the, you know, the future in any sense. I think that the Iraqi leadership - I mean certainly the ones I've encountered - and particularly within their military, they're very - they're quite gung-ho about, you know, we can handle this, just give us, you know X number of tanks or, you know, enough weaponry.

So there is that sort of enthusiasm. On the other hand, they have not moved swiftly to do things like, you know, taking steps that may be uncomfortable for them such as trying to incorporate in this predominantly Shiite government the Sunni volunteers. Bold steps on reconciliation have clearly proven difficult for them, and those are the things that I think would make the United States more comfortable with a swifter draw-down.

STEWART: Ann Scott Tyson is the Washington Post Pentagon reporter. Hey Ann, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

Ms. TYSON: My pleasure.

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