General says early drawdown would leave Iraq 'a mess'; GOP senator latest to defect on war

WASHINGTON (AP) - As pressure builds for a change in Iraq policy, a top U.S. commander there warned Friday that drawing down troops too soon would leave the country "a mess."

"You'd find the enemy regaining ground, re-establishing sanctuary, building more" roadside bombs, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch told a Pentagon news conference. "The violence would escalate. It'd be a mess."

Lynch was responding to a question on the possible effects if officials were to decide not to extend beyond the summer the troop buildup President Bush ordered early this year.

Bush sent an additional 30,000 troops to try to pacify Baghdad and wants Congress to wait until September for an assessment on how it's working. But an increasing number of U.S. lawmakers are already convinced the policy is failing and should be changed.

Lynch, who commands the 3rd Infantry Division and is overseeing operations in part of Baghdad and to the south, said he didn't know how long the extra forces would be needed.

"Those surge forces are giving us the capability we have now to take the fight to the enemy," Lynch said by video conference from Iraq. "If those surge forces go away, that capability goes away."

"Over time, we can turn the area over to Iraqi security forces, and then we'll be ready to do something that looks like a withdrawal," Lynch said. "But that's not going to happen any time soon."

In the latest setback to the increasingly unpopular war strategy, GOP stalwart Sen. Pete Domenici said Thursday that he already has decided he wants to see an end to combat operations and U.S. troops heading home from Iraq by spring.

The longtime New Mexico senator is the latest of several party loyalists and former war supporters to abandon Bush on Iraq in the past 10 days. They have urged a change sooner rather than later and further isolated the GOP president in his attempt to defend the unpopular war.

Last week, Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said the U.S. should significantly reduce its military presence in Iraq while bolstering diplomatic efforts. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., is expected to propose a new approach this month.

"I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops," Domenici said. "But I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home."

A spokesman for the White House, Tony Fratto, said that position amounts to the same approach sought by the Democrats, "which is, in fact, a precipitous withdrawal."

"We think that's absolutely the wrong way to go," Fratto said Friday. "It would be dangerous."

Asked how much impatience in Washington affects his strategic thinking, Lynch said:

"I don't worry about the political clock. I'm focused on killing or capturing the enemy in our battle space. I'm focused on helping the Iraqi people to get some kind of a sustained security presence. That's what I focus on. And it's going to take awhile."

With Congress on its July Fourth break, Domenici made his views known at a press conference in Albuquerque, N.M., though he said he has not talked to the administration about wanting a strategy shift.

"I have carefully studied the Iraq situation and believe we cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress to move its country forward," he said.

The senator said the situation in Iraq is getting worse. He said he now supports a bipartisan bill that embraces the findings of the independent Iraq Study Group.

In December, the group said the primary mission of U.S. troops should evolve to supporting Iraqi security forces. The report also said the U.S. should reduce political, military or economic support for Iraq if the Baghdad government cannot make substantial progress.

The group said combat troops could be out by March 2008 if specific steps were taken.

The bill would make most of the group's findings official U.S. policy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it's time Republicans back up their words with action and vote to bring troops home.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)