Bush's troop cuts in Iraq: larger questions
His announcement raises concerns about the ability and loyalty of the ‘Sons of Iraq’ neighborhood-watch program.
Security on the ground in Iraq is at one of its highest levels since the American invasion in 2003. But a number of factors that could threaten the fragile peace has forced the Bush White House to proceed cautiously as it plans to withdraw up to 8,000 troops by early next year.Skip to next paragraph
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Upcoming elections, lingering sectarian violence in the northern region, and the steady but still insufficient progress of the Iraqi security forces all helped to determine the number of troops President Bush announced Tuesday could be withdrawn.
But larger questions remain over how soon the Iraqi government will begin to absorb as many as 100,000 Iraqis known as the Sons of Iraq, a loosely organized Sunni-dominated group essentially paid by the US military to form a neighborhood watch program.
"I think this is a potentially huge problem with the Sons of Iraq," says one active duty military officer. "They are still the mortal enemy of the government of Iraq that we're there to support, and we've essentially rearmed and refitted them. That is the big question mark."
President Bush announced that he would begin to withdraw up to 8,000 American troops from Iraq by February, including a contingent of about 1,100 Marines from Iraq's once-deadly Anbar province in the next couple of months. That would leave 14 combat brigades and a total of about 138,000 US troops in Iraq as the new administration arrives.
"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and the Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
The deal represents a compromise between Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, who recommended leaving all 15 brigades on the ground until next June, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, who have been pushing to draw down in Iraq, in part to send a larger force to Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it was a "consensus view," says one senior Pentagon official, and each level in the chain of command agreed to the plan.
Security has much improved in Iraq under the surge of American troops, which ended in July. As one measure of violence and progress in Iraq, there were 13 American fatalities in July. That almost doubled to 23 last month, but is still lower than the high of 125 in May 2007 as the surge forces arrived.
The improved security is supposed to leave room for the Iraqi government to reconcile with Iraqi leaders, including many Sunni groups, a privileged minority under Saddam Hussein.