Smooth Iraqi elections key for Obama pullout

January 27th, 2009 - 1:38 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaWashington, Jan 27 (DPA) The elections in Iraq Jan 31 are the first of three this year that will be critical for evaluating the country’s stability and determining how quickly US President Barack Obama can move forward on a campaign promise to order larger withdrawals of combat troops.Iraqis are set to cast ballots in provincial elections followed later this year by local and then national elections in what is seen as a test of political reconciliation especially between rival Shiite and Sunni populations.

“How the provincial elections play out will, I think, be a big indicator for 2009, which is a big year,” Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters just days after Obama’s inauguration.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Mullen as well as other senior military commanders have been reviewing ways to begin troop withdrawals and assessing the risk of further drawdowns of the 143,000 American soldiers in Iraq.

During the presidential campaign Obama pledged to withdraw all remaining combat troops within 16 months of taking office, leaving behind a residual force of military trainers and other support personnel in order to shift forces to the escalating conflict in

After meeting with Gates, Mullen and his top generals, Obama issued a statement saying he had requested a plan for a “responsible military drawdown from Iraq” but did not mention the 16-month timeframe.

The security gains made by former president George W. Bush’s troop buildup that began in 2007 has opened up the possibility of re-deploying large numbers of troops.

Mullen said the current conditions in Iraq inspired “growing confidence” for troop reductions but “not in leaps and bounds”.

Gates initiated a review of the situation in Iraq after the Nov 4 elections. The defence secretary said he wanted to have an assessment prepared as quickly as possible, anticipating that Obama would come into office with ending the conflict in Iraq high on his agenda.

“We have begun a process in which a variety of options are being examined,” Gates said.

Gates oversaw Bush’s troop surge and revised strategy for Iraq for the administration’s final two years, and Obama has asked Gates to stay on under the new White House.

But Gates has warned against any precipitous withdrawal from Iraq that could prompt the country to slide back into the violence that prevailed before the troop buildup.

“Our obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each of those options and he will make the decision,” Gates said.

Obama wants to withdraw troops from Iraq and and send them to Afghanistan, where there are only about 34,000 US soldiers. The mission that began there under Bush after the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has faltered.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda have wreaked havoc in southern and eastern Afghanistan during the last two years and the country has slid toward more instability. The militants have used Pakistan’s remote tribal region as a refuge to carry out cross border attacks and US and NATO forces.

Obama said the war in Iraq and the attention it garnered distracted the United States from the situation in Afghanistan, which he regards as the “central front” in the war on terrorism.

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