Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bitter debate on Iraq 'disturbing': Army general

Bitter debate on Iraq 'disturbing': Army general

By Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The bitter battle in Washington over whether to withdraw U.S. troops quickly from Iraq is disturbing but has not damaged U.S. military morale, a senior American Army general in Baghdad said on Tuesday.

"A precipitous pullout, I believe, would be destabilizing," Lt. Gen. John Vines, the second-ranking U.S. commander there, told Pentagon reporters in a teleconference from Iraq. He refused to set any timetable.

"Of course the debate and the bitterness is disturbing. But, after all, we are a democracy, and that is what democracy is about ... people will have differences of opinion," Vines said.

"Certainly, soldiers are concerned about whether or not they enjoy the support of not only their elected representatives but the people. And they know that they have their support," Vines replied when pressed about morale among the 155,000 American troops in Iraq.

Vines, who commands the multinational corps of U.S.-led foreign troops in Iraq, declined to be drawn into the debate over a proposal by Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania that all of the troops be withdrawn within six months.

That call, issued last week by the decorated retired Marine and longtime supporter of the military, sparked a vitriolic war of words in the U.S. Congress, with some Republicans questioning Murtha's patriotism, at a time when President George W. Bush has suffered declining popularity over the war in Iraq.

Vines said any recommendation from U.S. commanders in Iraq to begin withdrawing forces would be made based on the security situation and not on political considerations.

"I'm not going to get into a timetable. It will be driven by conditions on the ground," he said.


Vines expressed regret over an incident on Monday in which U.S. troops opened fire on a crowded minivan north of Baghdad, killing at least three civilians, including a child. But he said the military would not make any changes in its "rules of engagement" that might endanger troops.

"The loss of any innocent life, indeed any life, is tragic," Vines said. "What we must never do is deprive a soldier in harm's way the ability to protect himself and his fellow soldiers."

How will Americans know, Vines was asked by reporters, that any recommendation by commanders to leave Iraq is based on military judgment rather than political questions over Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and his subsequent handling of the war?

"I know that our recommendations will be based on conditions here in-country. They will not be based on the things that you allude to," Vines said.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said U.S. military commanders in Iraq are mindful that the very presence of American forces may fuel insurgent violence in parts of that country, adding that this concern factored into decisions about future U.S. force levels.

The intensifying debate at home about the future of U.S. troops in Iraq will not play a role in the decisions being made about future force levels, Di Rita added.