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Pentagon officials concerned about declining public support for Iraq war

AFP | June 16, 2005

Senior Pentagon officials expressed concern Thursday about declining public support for the war in Iraq but rejected Congress calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces.

"I think it's fair to speak on behalf of the commanders and say that they would probably not welcome an artificially imposed deadline," said Lieutenant General James Conway, operations director of the Joint Staff.

"They have their plan. It's a plan for victory. And forces will be withdrawn when victory is accomplished between U.S. and Iraqi forces," he said at a Pentagon news conference.

Amid polls showing eroding public support for the war, two Democratic and two Republican lawmakers on Thursday urged President George W. Bush to set a plan for a US withdrawal from Iraq, and said they would introduce legislation requiring him to do so.

Representative Walter Jones, a conservative Republican, another Republican, Ron Paul, and Democratic representatives Neil Abercrombie and Dennis Kucinich have proposed Congress require Bush to develop by the end of this year a plan to begin withdrawing US troops from Iraq in October 2006.

Besides Jones, who was responsible for changing the name of French fries to "freedom fries" in congressional cafeterias, Republican Senator and former Cabinet member Mel Martinez has also voiced concern about Iraq.

Conway, a former commander in Iraq, acknowledged that the signs of public opposition to the war were worrisome, and made a comparison to the Vietnam War.

The Vietnamese, he said, "realized what I think our contemporary enemy realizes, that American public opinion is the center of gravity. That a democracy can't do certain things if in fact its citizens don't support it."

"So it is concerning that our public is not as supportive as perhaps they once were," he said.

A poll published Monday by USA Today found that 59 percent of Americans want a full or partial troop pullout from Iraq, the largest percentage for a withdrawal since the US-led invasion in March 2003.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll published last week found that 52 percent of those surveyed believed that the war had not made the United States safer, the first time that has been a majority sentiment since the war began.

The sinking polls have come amid daily reports from Iraq of a seemingly endless stream of devastating suicide attacks, and more US casualties.

Insurgents have added a deadly new twist to some bombs: shaped charges that can blast a projectile through armor plating on Humvees.

"Up-armored Humvees are susceptible if they're hit just right, with the shaped charge at just the right angle," Conway said. "And we have lost soldiers and/or marines due to some of these devices."

Lawrence DiRita, the Pentagon spokesman, blamed negative news coverage from Iraq for obscuring what he said was the "inexorable progress" in training Iraqi security forces, and meeting the timetables for political transition in Iraq.

"Right now we're living in an age where it's 24/7 news coverage. We've talked a lot about this. They're being inundated every day with images that are negative, and they rightly react by saying, 'Geez, if it's so bad over there, is there any hope for the future?'"

Conway summed his definition of victory in Iraq as "a safe and secure Iraq that we are able to turn back over to the Iraqis."

From the insurgents perspective, the general said, "nothing would make them happier, I suppose, than to think that there is a deadline out there, there is a time and distance factor associated with it, and then... they simply are able to wait us out."

Conway said training a capable Iraqi force will take time but he was confident the trends are in the right direction.

General George Casey, the US commander in Iraq, said in March that the 140,000-strong US force could begin to withdraw in "fairly substantial" numbers early next year as Iraqi security forces assume greater security responsibilities.

But US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this week that he had no sense of when his commanders in Iraq might recommend to decrease the size of the force.

 

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