Is Obama's 16-month withdrawal timetable slipping?

WASHINGTON — Responding to a request by President Barack Obama, top military and diplomatic advisers on Iraq have submitted a report to the White House that spells out the risks of drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq over periods as long as 23 months, two defense officials told McClatchy.

The multiple options are the first indication that the Obama administration may be willing to abandon a campaign promise of a 16-month withdrawal.

Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the outgoing U.S. envoy there, with input from Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, provided "a unified assessment" to the White House in recent days, an official close to Petraeus said.

"On Iraq, we were asked to provide projections, assumptions and risks on accomplishing objectives associated with 16-, 19- and 23-month drawdown options," according to one senior defense official's account of the meeting. The commanders and Crocker didn't recommend an option, but instead spelled out the pros and cons of each timetable.

Obama is likely to announce his strategy for Iraq by mid-March, a senior administration official told McClatchy.

Aides to Obama who were involved in the policy review stressed that the president has made no decisions. They said that Obama told his advisors shortly after taking office that he remained committed to the 16-month timeframe, but asked them to present him with the pros and cons of that and other options, without specifying dates.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to journalists.

The three advisers prepared the report shortly after a Jan. 21 meeting with the president that also was attended by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Throughout his campaign, Obama called for a 16-month withdrawal. Since he took office, however, his administration has said that it's exploring several options, including a 16-month drawdown.

"We are in the midst of an aggressive, logical review. The review is designed to result in a comprehensive strategy that allows us to end the war while maintaining our interest in a stable Iraq," the senior administration official said. Troop withdrawals will be just one part of the strategy, he said, which will also include diplomatic ramifications in the region.

It's unclear who came up with the idea of the 19- and 23-month timetables.

Gates has said that if Iraq's three major elections this year go smoothly, it would be a good indicator that sectarian violence would continue to subside if American troops withdraw. That would show, Gates indicated, that Iraqis are turning to political arena, and not violence, to resolve their disputes. On Saturday, Iraqis held their first election for provincial leaders, and there were no major incidents.

Some fear, however, that insurgents and militiamen are merely lying low in order to speed up the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Although violence has waned in Iraq, Pentagon leaders had been reluctant to agree to a withdrawal timeline, instead calling for a "conditions-based withdrawal."

However, with the signing of a status of forces agreement with Iraq — which spelled out the conditions for a withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011 — and Obama's election, the Pentagon has been more receptive.

In addition, some in the military, particularly in the Marine Corps, want to shift their focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is gaining more territory as the U.S.-backed government is losing the people's confidence amid a sharp rise in violence. They can only do that, however, if the U.S. reduces its military presence in Iraq.


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