US defense chiefs shy away from 16-month Iraq timetable
WASHINGTON (AFP) — 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."