MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
President Obama promised to speed up the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq, but the American Ambassador to Iraq has warned that a quick U.S. withdrawal could, as he said, "run very severe risks." Ryan Crocker gave his final news conference today before retiring, and he said he's given that assessment to President Obama. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ambassador Ryan Crocker arrived in Iraq during the darkest days of the sectarian conflict, just before the so-called surge when U.S forces pushed into Baghdad to stop the violent bloodletting. Along with General David Petraeus, he's credited with changing American policy here, helping to bring Iraq back from civil war. In his final months, Crocker helped negotiate a security agreement with Iraq that stipulates the total withdrawal of U.S. forces from this country in three years. President Obama has indicated he wants to speed up that timetable. In his last press conference, though, Ambassador Crocker sounded a note of caution.
Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): The president has spoken repeatedly of a responsible withdrawal. There will be a withdrawal, and that's what the agreement says. If it were to be a precipitous withdrawal, that could be very dangerous.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are currently about 140,000 American troops deployed in Iraq. And Crocker said they are fulfilling a vital mission.
Ambassador CROCKER: Iraq is a far more stable place than it was 18 or 24 months ago, but there are still ways to go. And clearly, I think, still a continuing need for our security support, because as we have tragically seen, there are still elements out there, particularly al-Qaeda, capable of delivering devastating attacks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Crocker said this year is going to be a key one in Iraq. Provincial elections will be taking place next week followed by a planned series of other votes, culminating in national elections at the end of the year.
Ambassador CROCKER: It is a year of elections. And the conduct and outcome of those elections I think are going to be very important for the country, in particular that they be and be perceived as free and fair in at least a general sense. I mean, they're not going to be perfect elections, I think we all know that. But it is important that they be credible elections.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Other areas of concern, Crocker noted, are Iraq's continuing problem with corruption, Iran's role in Iraq, and the rule of law here. A veteran diplomat and Arabist, Crocker's final assessment of Iraq was couched in his characteristically careful tones.
Ambassador CROCKER: As I wind down my time here, I'm not going to leave you with any sweeping prophecies or claims of millennial developments. Dramatic as some of these things have been, there is still a substantial distance to go. It's going to be three yards at a time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Crocker will leave Iraq in February. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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