(CNSNews.com) – The White House reiterated Wednesday that the plan to end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq in three weeks’ time is “on target.”
The confirmation came despite recent setbacks in the country, including ongoing violence, a five-month delay in forming a new government, and reports this week of al-Qaeda trying to bribe disaffected Sunni militia to change sides.
In a startling admission Wednesday, Iraq’s top military commander said the army will need U.S. military support until 2020 – nine years longer than stipulated by Washington’s current withdrawal plans.
“At this point, the withdrawal is going well, because they [U.S. forces] are still here,” Lt. Gen. Babakir Zebari told a conference in the capital. “But the problem will start after 2011.”
“If I were asked about the withdrawal, I would say to politicians, ‘the U.S. army must stay until the Iraqi army is fully ready in 2020,’” he said.
President Obama’s withdrawal timetable, based on a status of forces agreement negotiated between the Bush administration and Baghdad in 2008, has the final troops leaving Iraq at the end of 2011.
Between the end of this month – when combat operations formally end – and the end of next year, the U.S. plans to keep 50,000 troops in the country in a training and support role.
Obama discussed the troop drawdown with his national security team on Wednesday, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said later the president heard nothing that would require a change of plans.
“We are on target by the end of the month to end our combat mission, turn over bases that Americans have been on to the Iraqis, and transition our role there,” he said.
Gibbs said U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. Ray Odierno had reported “that Iraqi security forces are fully prepared to be in the lead when we end our combat mission later this month.”
On August 31 Operation Iraqi Freedom ends and Operation New Dawn – the transitional mission – begins. Gibbs would not be drawn on whether the administration will consider this to be a “victory,” but said “I think we can … celebrate the transitioning of responsibility to the Iraqis.”
Violence levels down?
Gibbs also said that according to Odierno, violence had dropped significantly over the past fortnight in Iraq.
“The level of violence observed over the past two weeks had been among the lowest in number of incidents that the coalition has seen since record-keeping on those incidences began,” he said.
One U.S. soldier has been killed in combat in Iraq this month so far – Spc. Faith Hinkley, 23, of Colorado Springs, Colo., died of injuries sustained when her unit came under enemy fire in Babil province on Saturday.
Combat casualties for the previous six months were one in July, two in June, two in May, four in April, three in March and one in February, according to a CNSNews database of U.S. military casualties.
With regard to Iraqi deaths, figures compiled by icasualties.org from wire service reports show 94 Iraqi civilians and 28 security force members have been killed in 36 deadly attacks since the beginning of August (including bombings in Basra on Saturday in which 43 people died.)
If taken from exactly two weeks ago, July 28, the figure rises to 108 civilians and 43 security force members killed in 46 attacks.
Even if figures for July – which are widely disputed by the Iraqi government and U.S. military – are discounted, the number of civilian fatalities so far this month does not appear to be substantially lower than in other recent months – 94 for the first 11 days of August compared to 127 for all of June, 231 for May, 240 for April and 152 for March.
And the number of security force deaths seems if anything to be on track to be higher in August than in recent months – 36 for the first 11 days of the month compared to 49 for June, 48 for May, 21 for April and 31 for March.
On average, 226 Iraqi civilians and 49 security force members were killed each month over the two-year period from June 2008 to June 2010, according to icasualties.org data. While it is impossible to predict what the remaining days of August will hold, the figures so far appear to foretell a month that is average, at best.
Gibbs noted, moreover, that the next three weeks could well bring an increase in attacks.
“We continue to anticipate as we get closer to the 31st of August a traditional uptick of violence around Ramadan, and as those that are left try to gain attention,” he said.
A British newspaper reported this week that as the U.S. drawdown advances al-Qaeda may be attempting to encourage members of the “Sons of Iraq” – minority Sunnis who allied with coalition forces to provide local-level security against insurgents – to defect.
Originating from the so-called “awakening” movement that emerged in Anbar province in 2006, the Sons of Iraq were widely credited with helping to reduce violence, in conjunction with the “surge” of troop reinforcements sent in by President Bush in 2007.
Members of the paramilitary force were paid by the U.S. military until handed over to Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated government in a gradual process beginning October 2008. Recent months have brought reports of disillusionment in its ranks, unhappiness over the rate of integration into the national army or transition to civilian jobs. There have also reportedly been holdups in pay.
On Tuesday the Guardian cited Sons of Iraq leaders as saying their men were being offered money by al-Qaeda. Some had stopped collecting their stipends from the government, stoking speculation that they may already have thrown in their lot with the terrorist group.
Asked about the report, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley Wednesday did not answer directly about Sons of Iraq members siding with al-Qaeda.
But he praised the movement, calling it “a critical turning point in Iraq,” and said it was important that the new Iraqi government is seen to act on behalf of all communities in the country.
“To the extent that there’s a story that says some within the awakening community may be disillusioned with what’s happened, that is something that Iraq has to pay attention to and to continue to develop that relationship,” Crowley added.
For his part, Gibbs noted some significant successes in Iraq against al-Qaeda in recent months.
“Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. and Iraqi military partnership has resulted in the death or arrest of more than 30 members of the top leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq,” he said in a later statement. “That includes the killing of al-Qaeda’s two top leaders this spring.”
Both the White House and the State Department voiced optimism that the long-delayed establishment of a new government in Baghdad following elections five months ago would happen soon.
“I think you can see developments in the region that are positive, meetings that are happening between the parties that are ultimately necessary for what’s going to need to happen to form a government,” Gibbs said, adding that the U.S. was setting no deadlines for this to happen.
Crowley said the U.S. was encouraging the Iraqi parties to make progress, but added “We can’t impose a solution here. It has to grow out of the political process that now does exist in Iraq.”
Christopher Hill, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, said in an NPR interview this week that some “pushing and shoving” was understandable, given the very close election result last March.
“I must say, in the last couple of weeks, the pace has really quickened,” he said. “And there’s a feeling that things may be heading in the right direction.”
Efforts to form a ruling coalition following the election stalled because neither the first-placed Iraqiyya alliance of Sunni-backed former prime minister Iyad Allawi nor incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s mostly Shi’ite State of Law coalition have been able to cobble together the parliamentary majority needed to govern.
The third-placed Shi’ite Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which has close ties with Iran, joined forces with State of Law, but wants Maliki to stand down as the slate’s candidate for prime minister.