WASHINGTON - CENTCOM Commander General David Petraeus and Multinational Force Iraq (MNF-I) Commander General Ray Odierno have submitted assessments of Iraq combat troop withdrawal plans to President Barack Obama based on the premise that his 16-month withdrawal plan would pose significantly greater risk to "security gains" than the 23-month plan they favour.
But a senior commander in Iraq appeared to contradict that premise last week by declaring that security gains in the Shi'a provinces of Iraq are "permanent", and a field commander in Iraq says there is no objective basis for any Petraeus-Odierno finding that Obama's plan carries greater risk than their 23-month plan.
Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, U.S. commander for the eight southern provinces of Iraq, denied in remarks to reporters Feb. 12 that the security gains in that region were fragile, contrary to the premise that Odierno has publicly asserted. Oates cited the dramatic reduction in activities by Shi'a militia fighters and the holding of the Jan. 31 elections without any major attacks.
In a previous press briefing Jan. 14, Oates had told reporters that, even if violence were to break out after provincial elections, Iraqi security forces "are well prepared to handle that".
He also cast doubt on Iranian involvement with Shi'a militias in the south, saying he had "no evidence or reports of people training in Iran", despite periodic "anecdotal intelligence reports" of such training camps.
Oates said he had already reassigned combat forces in the region to non-combat missions, either training or economic development, despite grumbling by soldiers.
Although Oates did not explicitly address the issue of drawdown plans, he has been known to favour a more rapid withdrawal from Iraq than Petraeus and Odierno for some time, according to a military officer who served under Odierno and is familiar with Oates's views. "His belief is that we need to get out of the country and let the Iraqis take responsibility for their areas," the officer, who asked not to be identified, told IPS.
A field commander in Iraq, who spoke with IPS on the understanding that he would not be identified, asserted flatly that there is no greater risk associated with President Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan than with the 23-month plan, contrary to Petraeus and Odierno.
The officer said that the U.S. military presence has already "passed the tipping point of diminishing returns" in relation to stability and security in Iraq. "The longer we stay now, the less we achieve," he said.
Neither Petraeus nor Odierno has offered any public explanation for their argument that a 16-month drawdown plan would pose greater risk to stability and security than one lasting seven months longer. However, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, an adviser to Petraeus, argued in Foreign Affairs last fall that the U.S. military presence is "essential to stabilize a system of local ceasefires" between Sunnis and Shi'as and between the militias loyal to Moqtada al Sadr and the Shi'a-dominated government.
But the field commander now serving in Iraq told IPS that the U.S. military mission in Iraq has "little correlation" with the present ceasefire between Sunnis and Shi'as. The Sunni-Shi'a conflict, said the officer, "is now one for political supremacy, not a counterinsurgency as defined in the Army's Counterinsurgency manual".
He said he had been briefed recently on the U.S. mission in Iraq and had been told it is still a counterinsurgency mission, as it has been for several years. There was "no mention of any peacekeeping function aimed at maintaining ceasefires," the officer said.
The idea of enforcing ceasefires is advocated by some in the U.S. command, he said, but that would be "a very different mission from counterinsurgency".
Biddle confirmed in an interview with IPS that the U.S. military peacekeeping role he advocates has not been adopted by the MNF-I command. A number of officers in the command, he said, still believe the U.S. objective in Iraq is "the gradual elimination" of all forces competing with the Iraqi government's security forces.
Ironically, it was Biddle who revealed in Congressional testimony last April that the reduction in sectarian violence in and around Baghdad beginning in 2007 for which Odierno had credited the U.S. troop surge was actually the result of the heavy defeat of Sunni insurgent forces in a year-long battle with Shi'a militias for control of Baghdad in 2006. Biddle observed that the U.S. military tried to stop the sectarian violence but played "no decisive role" in the ultimate ceasefire between Sunni and Shi'a.
In an online discussion on the Washington Post website Feb. 9, Biddle conceded that U.S. troop strength had been insufficient in 2006 to prevent the sectarian violence in Baghdad.
That revelation undercuts the Petraeus-Odierno argument that keeping combat troops in Iraq longer than 16 months would help maintain the present ceasefire between Sunni and Shi'a forces. In 16 months, U.S. combat troop strength will be only a fraction of its 2006 level, even under the Petraeus-Odierno plan.
The U.S. field commander said that, even if U.S. troops were given the mission of enforcing ceasefires, it would not give the U.S. military any additional influence over either side to remain several more months beyond the 16-month withdrawal period.
"At some point [U.S. troops] are going to have to leave," said the commander. "The Iraqis are going to resolve political differences without American military muscle to enforce it. It doesn't matter if that process begins in 16 months, 23 months, or 23 years. We gain nothing with the additional time."
"The 1st Cavalry Division cannot make the Shiites and Sunnis kiss and make up," he observed. "They can't make the problems of oil revenue sharing get resolved. Those are issues only Arabs and Kurds can resolve."
A second U.S. officer now serving in Iraq, who also asked not to be identified, expressed doubt that a 16-month withdrawal is logistically feasible, based on his experience in a specific area south of Baghdad. But he agreed that it is time to complete the turnover of responsibility to the Iraqi Army and rapidly withdraw U.S. combat troops.
"It's time for us to get out," he said in an interview. "If the U.S. military continues to do the job, the Iraqis are going to be lazy, and they won't do it themselves."
The officer conceded that the Iraq army "is nowhere near as competent as the U.S. Army," and that "there may be some breakout of bad things" after the troop withdrawal. Nevertheless, the officer warned, "If you don't give the Iraqis the mantle of responsibility, we will be there for another 25-30 years."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.