BAGHDAD — U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Thursday warned against a hasty withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and offered a sobering assessment of the country despite what he called its "remarkable transition" in the last two years.
Crocker, in his last meeting with Western journalists before retiring next month, spoke a day after President Obama reiterated his desire to end the American presence in Iraq, where about 140,000 U.S. troops remain.
Obama would like to have all the troops out by spring 2010. An agreement forged by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government calls for the last troops to leave by the end of 2011, though it is subject to change.
Whatever happens, the ambassador said that if it were to be a "precipitous withdrawal, that could be very dangerous." Crocker said he was confident that was not the direction Obama was going. However, the president campaigned on a promise to end the war in Iraq, and with violence at its lowest level since 2003 and commanders in Afghanistan saying they need more troops, Obama will face pressure to move quickly on his campaign vow.
In a conference call Wednesday night with Obama, Crocker said, he and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, gave their assessments of the security situation in Iraq. He would not say what they told the president, though Odierno has also urged caution in reducing forces.
Crocker, a career diplomat who arrived in Iraq in March 2007, when sectarian bloodshed was at its highest level, said fear remained "very pervasive" despite security improvements.
"Security does have to be maintained. Neither the Iraqis nor we can take our eye off that ball," he said.
"A precipitous withdrawal runs some very severe risks," he added, citing the possible effects "if we were to decide suddenly we're gone."
Those effects could include the resurgence of Sunni Arab insurgents loyal to the Al Qaeda in Iraq militant group and increased meddling by neighboring countries such as Iran and Syria, which have been accused of smuggling fighters and weapons into Iraq to destabilize the U.S.-backed government.
"And perhaps most importantly, I think, it would have a chilling effect on Iraqis," Crocker said. If they perceived that U.S. forces were rapidly withdrawing, the spirit of compromise that led to political breakthroughs such as the scheduling of provincial elections for Jan. 31 could fall by the wayside, he said.
U.S. officials say the elections will be crucial to setting straight lopsided power structures on provincial councils nationwide and ushering in national reconciliation. Most councils are dominated by Shiite Muslims and Kurds because Sunni Arabs boycotted the last election in 2005. This time, all groups are taking part. There are 14,400 candidates vying for 440 seats on 14 councils.
"Progress has been really significant, but you cannot underestimate the challenges and the time it's going to take to work through those," the ambassador said.
Crocker, who announced his retirement plans in March, has served across the Middle East and South Asia since 1971, and has held a series of high-profile posts that made him a major force in U.S. diplomacy in the region.
He was serving in Beirut in 1983 during the bombing of the American Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks; he reopened the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2002 after the U.S. invasion to drive out the Taliban leadership; and he was the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan from 2004 until coming to Baghdad. He has also served as ambassador to Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon.
Asked what he planned to do after leaving Iraq, Crocker replied with a laugh: "My plan is not to have a plan."
"With the pace and the pressure of Iraq, I don't think I could make a sensible judgment until I'm out of here doing something else," he said, adding that initially at least, he and his wife would go back to eastern Washington state, where he is from, and build a house.