Alexander, Corker believe Iraq troop levels can be reduced

Hank Hayes • Aug 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Enough progress is happening in Iraq to allow the U.S. military to begin reducing troop levels, U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker said in a joint conference call with reporters Wednesday.

“There are seven provinces where enough progress has been made to involve Iraqis in their own security and would permit us to bring troops home,” said Alexander.

Corker responded: “There’s no question that by virtue of what is happening now, we will be able to reduce our troop levels. ... Much of the debate six months ago was that (American) troops were the problem. ... I think it would be difficult for someone to say today that our men and women in uniform are the problem. ... (Iraqis) view us as enablers now.”

The two Tennessee Republicans had just returned from a trip that included visits to several sites in and around Baghdad as well as meetings with top American and Iraqi leaders including Commanding Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, and Iraqi Deputy Presidents Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashimi.

Alexander said one indicator of success occurred during a meeting at an outpost with tribal leaders.

“(The leaders) said they were fed up with the random murders of their children and are joining with coalition forces to run off al-Qaida (terrorists),” Alexander said.

Next month, Petraeus and Crocker are expected to give a much-awaited Iraq War progress report that will chart America’s future military involvement there.

Alexander, who is up for re-election next year, continued to advocate his legislation for Congress to adopt the Iraq Study Group Report recommendations “moving our troops from a combat mission to a support, equipping and training mission” as soon as possible.

“If the Petraeus plan is based upon the Iraq Study Group recommendations, that is the best opportunity to unify government and speak with a single voice,” Alexander stressed.

Alexander noted his bill is gaining support in Congress but still isn’t endorsed by President Bush.

Corker reiterated Petraeus deserves a chance to lay out his recommendations before Congress takes any action.

“No question we’ve made some military gains over the last several months...” Corker said. “Crocker and Petraeus realize how important it is to be working at the local level. ... You hear very little discussion on the ground now about ‘civil war.’ More discussion is focused on the elements of al-Qaida (terrorists) who have come since 2003 and are creating issues. ... But overall no doubt progress has been made militarily. ... I think (Petraeus is) going to be talking about things and laying out the future for us in a way that I hope other senators will listen to.”

Both senators acknowledged Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is having trouble uniting factions within his government, but neither called for his ouster. On Monday, Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Iraqi parliament to oust Maliki’s government and replace it with one that is more unifying if he cannot bring political forces together.

“Certainly the central government is lacking at this point,” said Corker. “We met with two deputy presidents. ... One is a Sunni, one is a Shia. ... They had obviously differing views on many things that were occurring. ... It’s evident Maliki has some deficiencies. It’s evident he has not been able to bring people together. Importantly, many of the services that need to be carried out in various parts of the country are not being carried out in a manner they should. ... No doubt there’s a high pressure level right now on Maliki. For our success to occur, the government does have to come together and both be competent and also be able to create a level of trust that people are going to do the things they say they will do. ... Power sharing is not happening between Sunnis and Shias.”

Alexander suggested reconciliation between Sunnis and Shias will take time.

“I think it is wrong for us to sit over here in Washington and lecture Baghdad about not coming up with political solutions when we can’t come up with one ourselves,” Alexander said. “Democratic governments don’t form easily, and there are long traditions of division in Iraq based upon religious and ethnic backgrounds. ... In Iraq there is a long tradition of loyalty to tribes and neighborhoods, especially outside of Baghdad. Progress will be slow in Baghdad and will come more rapidly province by province. ... I don’t think it’s our job to say (if Maliki should step down). I don’t think we’d be especially interested in the United States if Maliki suggested President Bush should quit.”

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