ANNE PLUMMER FLAHERTY Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON The top U.S. commander in the Middle East warned Congress today against setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, saying it would impede commanders in managing U.S. and Iraqi forces. The assertion by Gen. John Abizaid seemed to put him at odds with some Democrats pressing the Bush administration to begin pulling out of Iraq. Abizaid spoke as the Senate Armed Services Committee began re-examining U. S. policy in the wake of last week’s Democratic election victory, which gave them control of Congress starting next year. In arguing against a timetable for troop withdrawals, Abizaid told the committee that he and other U.S. commanders need flexibility in managing U.S. forces and determining how and when to pass on responsibility to Iraqi forces. “Specific timetables limit that flexibility,” the general said. Reflecting the division of opinion on how to proceed in Iraq, the next chairman of the committee said the administration must tell Iraq that U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in four to six months in order to force them to take responsibility for their own future. “We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves. The only way for Iraqi leaders to squarely face that reality is for President Bush to tell them that the United States will begin a phased redeployment of our forces within four to six months,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Asked about his testimony in August that Iraq could fall into civil war and that the sectarian violence was as bad as he had ever seen it, Abizaid said that more recently the situation has improved, while still troubling. He visited Baghdad in recent days. “It’s certainly not as bad as the situation appeared back in August,” Abizaid said, adding that he saw growing confidence among Iraqis in their government. “It’s still at unacceptably high levels,” he said of the sect-on-sect violence “I wouldn’t say that we have turned the corner in this regard, but it’s not nearly as bad as it was in August.” Asked by Levin whether he was considering increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, Abizaid said he was considering “all the way from increasing U. S. combat forces all the way down to withdrawing” them. He said he would present recommendations to his superiors. Today’s hearing was the first on Iraq policy since the Nov. 7 elections, when voters handed Democrats control of Congress in part because of their frustration over the lack of progress in Iraq. Just over a third of the public approves of Bush’s handling of the war, according to AP-Ipsos polling last month. About six in 10 think the U.S. military action in Iraq was a mistake. It was also the first hearing since Bush announced Nov. 8 that Donald H. Rumsfeld would step down as defense secretary and that former CIA director Robert Gates would be nominated to replace him. Bush also expressed a willingness to consider fresh ideas on Iraq, although he remains opposed to setting a specific timetable for troop withdrawals.