U.S. End Game in Iraq a Work in Progress

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Will a gradual, region-by-region withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq begin next summer, as has been suggested? There is a growing sense of urgency to remove American troops, but turning the job over to Iraqi security forces is a complex prospect.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. A new American plan has emerged over the last few weeks for leaving Iraq. The top US commander, General George Casey, has talked about beginning a drawdown of US forces next summer. And the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, this week described how that drawdown might be carried out.

WERTHEIMER: We'll examine that plan over the next few minutes.

First, the sense of urgency to bring troops home and how difficult it will be to do so was highlighted this week when 20 Marines were killed near Hadithah in western Iraq.

Mr. MATTHEW COX (Reporter, Army Times): We are in the Anbar province near the Syrian border. It's very remote, very open country. There are towns; they're small, usually like 20,000, and they're surrounded by desert.

WERTHEIMER: Matthew Cox is a reporter with the Army Times. He's embedded with an Army unit along the Euphrates River not far from the Marines in Hadithah. The unit started operations there late last month.

Mr. COX: As soon as we rolled into town, we came into town to try to meet with some locals and were ambushed as soon as we rolled into the edge of town with a roadside bomb and a couple of rocket-propelled grenades. For the first four days, every day we were ambushed. It was suicide car bombs with roadside bombs.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that you were wounded this week in an insurgent attack. What happened?

Mr. COX: Yes, I was. We were in a town called al-Bu Hardan, which is about two miles from the Syrian border southwest of here. Some soldiers from 1st Platoon--they just happened along four males that were digging holes by the side of a road to implant some homemade bombs. They gave chase. They captured two of them and then detained them. They were moving them back to our vehicles. I didn't realize it, but there was like a Chevy Suburban, basically a suicide car bomb, that was approaching from the other direction. A soldier in the hatch fired a couple of rounds off at the car as it was coming very quickly. I think it caused it to detonate prematurely, because it didn't ram us, but the blast was just huge. I got hit with some shrapnel in the leg, but nobody else was real--you know, the soldier that fired, he was hit in the hand and a little bit in the head, but nobody else was seriously hurt, which is really a miracle.

WERTHEIMER: Matthew Cox still has two pieces of shrapnel in his leg and that Army unit continues its hunt for insurgents. Sustaining that kind of operation all over Iraq with frequent American deaths is the challenge for General Casey and his other field commanders. Retired Army Major General Bill Nash is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says he's sensing pressure to find a way to end the mission.

Major General BILL NASH, Ret. (Council on Foreign Relations): By next spring, it will be three years since the invasion of Iraq. The patience of the international community, the patience of the Iraqi people and the patience of the American people will begin to impact on the ability to sustain operations. Likewise, of course, by next summer we'll be getting ready for congressional elections in the United States. The casualty count for American forces could well be approaching 3,000 a year from now. And so the administration is quite anxious, of course, to get this problem, if you will, behind them and turn it over to the Iraqis.

WERTHEIMER: You've had an intimate and up-close look at politics as it's practices in the Pentagon and in the military. Do you think that the statements that we've seen recently are an indication that the American government has really made a decision, for whatever reasons, that they are going to bring the troops back?

Gen. NASH: Yeah, I think there's a general consensus that, A, we need to, both for our own good, as well as the betterment of the situation in Iraq. And, number two, I think there's a realization that after three years it's time to do something decisive.

Mr. DOUGLAS FEITH (Undersecretary of Defense for Policy): It'll be a process that will be generally heading in the direction of greater responsibility in the hands of the Iraqis.

WERTHEIMER: Douglas Feith is the undersecretary of defense for policy. His last day at the Pentagon is next Monday. I asked him about the new plan outline offered this week by the US ambassador in Baghdad that calls for US troops to leave as newly trained Iraqi forces take over one region at a time.

Mr. FEITH: What we're going to see in this process is not the steady transfer of responsibilities consistently to the Iraqis. I think there may be cases where the insurgency flares up in an area where it looked like it was much more under control and there may be a requirement for coalition forces to come back in. I know that General Casey is looking at the security situation all the time to find how he can transfer more responsibilities to the Iraqis. That's part of the strategic idea.

WERTHEIMER: It's true, I believe, that the vast majority of US troops are concentrated in the more restive areas of the country. How do you contemplate pulling out of those places?

Mr. FEITH: Well, the more restive parts are the more difficult parts, and one would suppose that those would not be among the first places that get turned over.

WERTHEIMER: It sounds like what you're saying is that we could not say next summer the forces will begin to be drawn down. You're talking about a much more complicated process than just simply saying to the American people, `We're bringing them home.'

Mr. FEITH: I think that's exactly right. If I've communicated complexity, then I've succeeded in an important point. This is not a simple matter.

WERTHEIMER: If you look at provinces, in how many of these are you thinking that this process could begin relatively quickly?

Mr. FEITH: Well, that will be a judgment that our commanders will make, and I can't speculate about numbers at this point.

WERTHEIMER: If you look at the way things are going in Iraq this week with more than 20 Marines dying in western Iraq, is this where you thought we would be this far away from the actual invasion, the successful invasion, of Iraq?

Mr. FEITH: The losses are really terrible and there are major sacrifices that our forces are making, but what is being accomplished there is very large and we have a large national interest in our success in Iraq.

WERTHEIMER: Considering the large numbers of casualties in the last few days just from that one Marine unit out of Ohio, obviously, this is, as you say, a tremendous sacrifice, a political problem, as well. How much more of this do you think the Army and the Marines can take stretched as they are over huge areas like western Iraq?

Mr. FEITH: Well, I think everybody who talks to our forces is impressed by the intensity of their dedication and their appreciation of the importance of the mission. And I don't think anybody should question the ability of the Marines, the Army, our forces, in general, to handle the job that they're given.

WERTHEIMER: Undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith at the Pentagon.

No one is questioning the ability of American forces in Iraq, but there are worries about how long US forces can carry on with such a conflict. General Nash.

Gen. NASH: Well, the pace of operations is significant. That means the soldiers and the Marines are coming and going. They're spending a better part of a year in Iraq. They get some leave or they get demobilized and then they're put on alert for subsequent missions. Army forces, the regular forces, go into a training cycle. So they're busy, busy, busy, and that's stressing the families. It's stressing the re-enlistment system. I think--I mean, they will do the nation's deed, but it's been a long time since they've had to pull this hard.

WERTHEIMER: And for the soldiers' reporter Matthew Cox's watch, on patrol in western Iraq, pulling hard for so long does take a toll.

Mr. COX: I'm embedded with B Company, 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry and, also, 2nd Squadron and 14th Cavalry, and they go in, do daily patrols in Rawah, which is the city we're near. They're just out here doing their job. I don't think they're thinking a whole lot about--you know, they've got a month left and they're thinking about going home and getting some rest.

WERTHEIMER: President Bush said yesterday from his ranch in Texas that, `Our troops will come home as soon as possible.' That was just after he said, `We will complete the job in Iraq.' Doing both those things is his administration's challenge.

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