U.S. mission in Iraq could take 'years'

Sun National Staff

WASHINGTON - Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded the forces that toppled Saddam Hussein's government, said yesterday that American soldiers could be patrolling Iraq four years from now and that the current level of U.S. troops - about 145,000 - will probably have to be maintained into next year.

"I anticipate that we will be involved in Iraq in the future, and, sir, I don't know whether that means two years or four years. I just don't know," Franks told members of the House Armed Services Committee.

Franks' comments marked the first time that a senior official has provided even a rough timeline for the Iraqi peacekeeping and occupation mission, even though defense analysts and military officers have said for weeks that the need for a multiyear effort is becoming increasingly obvious.

The Senate signaled its concern yesterday by unanimously approving a resolution urging President Bush to consider asking members of NATO or the United Nations to contribute troops and security personnel to help stabilize Iraq. The nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Carl Levin of Michigan, both Democrats, was approved 97-0.

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is running for president, said it is time to "change course, to share the postwar burden internationally for the sake of our country."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Bush have said repeatedly that U.S. troops would not stay in Iraq one day more than necessary, though they have shied away from predicting how long that might be. For the first time last week, Bush hinted that an extended occupation might be needed to bring democracy and prosperity to the war-torn country, saying it would be a "a massive and long-term" effort.

Franks, the four-star officer who stepped down last week as commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, testified for a second consecutive day on Capitol Hill. He was again pressed by lawmakers about when the U.S. troop commitment might be scaled back.

Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he worries that "we may find ourselves in the throes of guerrilla warfare for years."

Franks noted that 141,000 troops, including 47,000 Marines, have returned home. The Army's 3rd Infantry, which has been in the gulf region for about nine months, will begin rotating out next week, and all 16,000 of the division's soldiers are expected back at Fort Stewart, Ga., by the end of September.

The current 145,000 troops in Iraq, mostly from the Army, "represents the desirable footprint for the near term," Franks said. "I don't know if that's through the end of December or whether that's January or February. But I do generally agree with the proposition that we may see next year a reduction in forces."

Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., a South Carolina Democrat, asked for the "key criteria" that would enable U.S. forces to leave.

"Absolute success," Franks replied. "We have to have an Iraqi face on governance in that country so that we assure ourselves that another safe harbor for terrorism and for the export of [weapons of mass destruction] is not created."

Spratt asked whether there would have to be an elected Iraqi government before U.S. troops could pull out.

"That's my view, yes," said Franks.

With more than half of the active-duty Army supporting the Iraq operation, the Pentagon is grappling with how to rotate troops out, mindful that it must also fulfill commitments in Korea, Afghanistan and the Balkans. One option for Iraq is to extend the usual six-month deployment to nine months. Another is to try to send more National Guard combat units.

The Bush administration also is pressing other nations to contribute forces, with mixed success. Some countries, including Pakistan and India, have been asked but have yet to commit troops. Rumsfeld told U.S. lawmakers this week that 19,000 troops from other nations, mostly British, are in Iraq, a number he said could increase to 30,000 by the fall.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said at a Capitol Hill news conference that Bush must level with the American people about the threat facing U.S. soldiers and the need for more international help.

"I learned a long time ago in Vietnam what happens when pride gets in the way of making honest decisions," said Kerry. "It's time for the president to tell the truth that we lack sufficient forces to do the job of reconstruction in Iraq and withdraw in a reasonable period; to tell the truth that American should not go it alone, that international support to share the burden is as critical now as it should have been in the months leading up to the war."

The Bush administration is trying to rebuild the Iraqi police force and army as a way of relieving pressure on overextended U.S. forces. Some 35,000 Iraqi police have been hired, about half what is needed.

Last month, the Pentagon started recruiting for a new Iraqi army, with a goal of 12,000 soldiers within a year and a force of 40,000 in three years.

Lawmakers asked Franks if he was surprised by the number of attacks on U.S. troops after the fall of Baghdad and Bush's announcement May 1 that major combat was over.

"I had hoped that we would see the total collapse of all resistance and that there would be no fractious behavior, but I had never believed that that hope could be a reality," Franks said. He estimated that 10 to 25 attacks are made on U.S. forces in Iraq daily.

"Part of the reason for that is that we go out looking for it," he said. "We are ... conducting offensive operations. We have our people every day not sitting in base camps but rather out looking to find the Baathists, looking to find the jihadis, looking to find these people who cross the border from Syria and are hell-bent on creating difficulty."

Seventy-seven U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq since May 1, the Pentagon says, with 31 deaths the result of hostile action. Attacks over the past two days in a town south of Baghdad, and in Tikrit, Hussein's hometown and a center of resistance, led to the deaths of at least two American soldiers and the wounding of a third.

Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican, asked whether there would be a "quelling of unrest" if Hussein were killed or captured.

"We don't know whether [Hussein] and the sons are alive," said Franks. "There is no doubt that confirmation of killing or capturing Saddam will have a very positive effect on operations and stability inside Iraq."

A Special Forces team, Task Force 20, is charged with trying to find Iraqi leaders, he said.

Under questioning, Franks said U.S. troops will eventually find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, noting that the search of about 1,000 suspected sites is continuing.

"I believe we will either find the weapons or we will find evidence of the weapons of mass destruction," he said. "And I believe, sir, that will vindicate the intelligence that we received."

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