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General urges U.S. to reduce Iraq presence

He tells Congress that the military needs to change its image as an occupying force.

September 07, 2007|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military should reduce its "footprint' in Iraq to counter the impression that it is an occupying force, a prominent retired Marine general said Thursday in congressional testimony that challenged the case for continuing the troop increase backed by the White House.

Just days before the U.S. military commander in Iraq is expected to provide a much more upbeat assessment to Congress, Gen. James L. Jones said the high-profile presence of U.S. troops has engendered animosity among Iraqis, even though the increase has brought some security gains.

"The force footprint should be adjusted in our view to represent an expeditionary capability and to combat the permanent force image of today's presence," Jones told the Senate Armed Services Committee, advocating a smaller, more portable U.S. presence by early next year. "This will make an eventual departure much easier."

Jones headed a group of retired military experts commissioned by an act of Congress in May to assess Iraq's military and police forces. His testimony and the release of the group's final report were the latest in a series of appraisals leading up to the scheduled appearance next week of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq and architect of the troop increase.

Overall, Jones said that Iraqi forces were making uneven progress toward taking on a greater role in providing security in the war-torn country. Still, Jones said, U.S. and coalition forces should gradually disengage from front-line duty in Baghdad and other flash points -- shifting their focus toward backing Iraqi units and sealing off borders with Iran and Syria that remain porous sources of arms and anti-U.S. operatives.

While some of his testimony appeared to bolster the case for a reduced U.S. presence, he cautioned against a swift pullout or setting deadlines for withdrawal.

"I think deadlines can work against us, and I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest," Jones said, alluding to mainly Democratic proposals to set a timetable for the removal of U.S. forces.

As a result, Jones' testimony provided cover for both Republicans and Democrats in the debate about the course of the war. The capabilities of Iraqi security forces are a key factor in the debate because it will help determine when and to what extent the United States is able to extricate its forces from a largely sectarian civil war.

Jones came under pointed questioning from lawmakers -- including two presidential candidates -- seeking to solicit testimony supporting their views on Iraq. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a leading presidential candidate, questioned Jones' criticism of deadlines, saying that the Iraqi government has shown little sense of urgency.

"I don't see the Iraqi government responding," she said. "And if we take away deadlines, we take away benchmarks, we take away timelines, what is the urgency that will move them to act?"

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ardent supporter of the war and another presidential candidate, chastised what he called "armchair generals who reside here in the air-conditioned comfort of Capitol Hill."

In some of his most pointed language, Jones warned of serious repercussions if the United States were to withdraw troops rapidly.

A "precipitous departure," he said, would likely lead to "a significant boost in the numbers of extremists, jihadists, however you want to call it, in the world who believe that they'll topple the major power on Earth and that all else is possible."

"It would not only make us less safe," Jones said, "it'll make our friends and allies less safe."

The study group, known as the Iraqi Security Force Independent Assessment Commission, cited "measurable, though uneven, progress," and concluded that while Iraqi units were becoming increasingly capable of handling security missions, they would not be able to take control of the country in the next 18 months.

The group found that the Iraqi army has made "impressive progress" in its ability and willingness to defend against internal threats. It said 10 operational divisions were already deployed, with three more expected to be ready in the next year.

But the report found the Iraqi national police to be so unreliable and riddled with operatives from sectarian groups that the panel recommended disbanding the 25,000-officer force. Jones said the Shiite-dominated national police were "heavy- handed in their mission execution, not trusted by people of other ethnic origins, and there are allegations of corruption that pervade this force as well."

In urging coalition forces to shift some of their focus from fighting the insurgency to sealing off borders, the group cited "very worrisome" interference from Syria and Iran.

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