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Iraqis say US exit plan should await security

A plan to withdraw US troops from Iraq is being downplayed at home and eyed skeptically in Iraq.

By , Awadh al-Taee / June 27, 2006


News of a possible US military reduction in Iraq, beginning as early as this fall, is being met in Baghdad with the deep skepticism of a war-weary people who have witnessed many other American exit plans go unfulfilled.

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Most Iraqis want an end to the 127,000-strong US presence, which they consider an occupation. But they are concerned, too, that Iraqi forces, while growing in size and capability, still can't cope with the insurgency and sectarian killings that have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

"I want the Americans to leave as soon as possible, so the reason to attack Iraqi troops will end, because insurgents are always accusing us of being agents and supporting these foreign troops," a first lieutenant of Iraq's Interior Ministry said Monday, while commanding a checkpoint on Baghdad's airport road.

"Before they leave, they should destroy the [sectarian] militias and make sure the security elements are strong," says the officer. "I don't want them to leave completely; they should stay in bases. But if they don't lower their numbers, we will pressure them to do so."

The apparent plan, initially reported by The New York Times on Sunday, projects that US combat brigades in Iraq, of 3,500 troops each, would be cut from 14 to five or six by the end of next year. An initial two brigades now slated to go home this September would not be replaced, according to the Times.

But, says Ismael Zayer, editor of Baghdad's Sabah al-Jadiid newspaper, "We need to face the fact that if security ... does not improve in a very crucial way, there is nothing to talk about.

"We have the impression that a battle of Baghdad has begun already now," says Mr. Zayer. "Pulling out small troops or something bigger is good, it's welcome, but it has to be part of a ... genuine plan; not propaganda."

US officials have "emphasized that any withdrawals would depend on continued progress" and strength of Iraqi units – the same caveat that has undermined every previous pullout plan – and that the newly formed Iraqi government had yet to be consulted, the Times noted.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Sunday unveiled a 24-point plan for national reconciliation, and called on Iraqi forces to take control of growing slices of Iraq, to enable US-led coalition troops to leave. He gave no timeline for a US pullout.

"When they finish supplying us Humvees, tanks, cannons, and airplanes like their army, [US forces] should leave today, before tomorrow," says Captain Mohammad, of the Iraqi Army, who would not give his full name. "We originally did not even want to smell their perfume, or [for them to] leave any footprint in Iraq."

US forces are "not more courageous than us, and they do not care more about our homes than we do," asserts Mohammad, though newly trained Iraqi units have disintegrated in past years when ordered to quell uprisings.

Poll results in late March from the US-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) indicate that, at least relative to security, withdrawal of US troops is not a top demand. When asked to list priorities for the new government, 48 percent said security should rank first; more than 85 percent listed security as one of the top three most important issues.

Among more than 2,800 Iraqis polled, withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq ranked a distant third, the top priority of just 9 percent of Iraqis. In the IRI poll, withdrawal was 1 point ahead of fixing the economy and job creation.

In some cases, US lawmakers have been as skeptical as Iraqis. Democrats in Congress were criticized for trying to vote on an exit timeline for Iraq last week, during heated debate in both houses.

"The [Defense] Department's drawn up plans at all times, but I think it would be wrong now to say that this is the plan we are going to operate under," Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia said on FOX News Sunday, when asked about US General George Casey's reported plan.

Monday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, "I would caution very strongly against everybody thinking, 'Well, they're going to pull two brigades out.'