WASHINGTON – US defense chiefs on Thursday shied away from endorsing a 16-month deadline for withdrawing US combat forces from Iraq, saying they would present President Barack Obama a full range of options.
Obama met Wednesday with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the US ambassador to Iraq and senior military officers for what the White House said was a session to discuss planning for the withdrawal of US combat troops in 16 months.
But asked whether the accelerated timetable was now the main plan, Gates told reporters that the session was just "the beginning of a process of evaluating various options."
"Let me just say, I think our obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each of those options," he said. "And he will make the decision."
Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both stressed that a series of elections in Iraq make this an important year for stabilizing the country.
Provincial elections are scheduled for January 31, marking the first time the Sunnis will be going to the polls in numbers after boycotting the last elections in 2005.
"There's growing confidence, but it's not in leaps and bounds," Mullen said, observing that the US commander in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, believes that security conditions, though improved, remain fragile.
"How the provincial elections play out will, I think, be a big indicator for 2009, which is a big year," he said.
Mullen said the improving conditions permit a "responsible drawdown," but it was a question of how quickly it should be done.
In Baghdad, departing US Ambassador Ryan Crocker warned that "a precipitous withdrawal runs some very severe risks."
"Al-Qaeda is incredibly tenacious. As long as they hang on they are looking for the opportunity to regenerate," he said.
More US troops have to come out of Iraq, however, to build up US forces in Afghanistan, which Obama sees as the main front in the battle against terrorism.
The president said Thursday that the situation in Afghanistan is "perilous" and it will take time to defeat the Taliban.
There are currently 143,000 US troops in Iraq, and only 34,000 in Afghanistan. The US commander in Kabul has requested another 30,000 troops, which the Pentagon has said would be provided over the next 12 to 18 months.
Gates said the shift in priority from Iraq to Afghanistan is already underway.
"The president has been quite clear that the mission is to responsibly draw down and end our active combat role, the role that we have been playing over the last number of years.
"He wants to put more emphasis on Afghanistan and deal with the problems in Afghanistan there and the challenges that we face in Afghanistan," he said.
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