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Sessions: Give Iraq surge plan 4 months

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions reiterated Monday his support for a troop surge in Iraq, but with a caveat.

If there is no sign of improvement in about four months, the Mobile Republican said, it's time to consider pulling out.

"If this thing continues at its current trend, we're going to have to make major, tough decisions, because it's not been going well," said Sessions, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Senate Budget committees. "I don't see how we can continue putting soldiers in where progress is not being made. We're getting to a point where we have to make that decision."

Sessions, who called his support for the troop surge a "bitter pill," said he expects to have a sense of whether it was successful in beginning restoration of order within four months. Absent signs of progress — especially in the form of Iraqi support — he thinks it is time to consider pulling troops out.

"I'm willing to support the president on a temporary surge," Sessions said. "Worse than going sideways, (our success in Iraq) has been going down. If you can't secure the capital city where the political institutions are supposed to provide order, then you're in big, big trouble. I would say that if this surge does not make progress, we've got to go back to Square 1."

"Square 1," he said, means troop reductions, not increases.

"Will the Iraqis meet their commitments? We should know that within a few months: two, three or four months," Sessions said.

He was critical of congressional debate on a non-binding resolution against the troop surge, pointing out that the surge has already happened. The resolution is nothing but politicians trying to cover their bases, he said.

Sessions, expressing agreement with the recently replaced head of Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid, who said he was against a major influx of troops in Iraq.

"We do not need to have too large a military presence in Iraq," Sessions said. "You just become a target; you really do become an occupying power. We need to give the impression and the reality that we're getting out as soon as possible."

Sessions said he is not sure whether we should have entered Iraq with more troops than we did, but he is sure we should have been more attuned to the cultural landscape of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"One of the lessons of this deal is that we need to be a little bit more humble about what we can accomplish," Sessions said. "This is a delicate, delicate situation."

He compared Islamic anger at foreign intrusion to that of Southerners before the Civil War. He referenced a book, "The Places in Between," by Rory Stewart. The book is a memoir of Stewart's journey across Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

"It's like Southerners," Sessions said. "They're proud people. They take their faith seriously. They don't like their faith demeaned and they don't like to be called backwards and 'no account.' They go from feeling the rest of the world is pornographic — they see TV in the U.S. as going to hell in a hand basket — to us telling them all these things they've got to do."

Ignorance of foreign cultures, Sessions said, has contributed to our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's an American failure," Sessions said. "I would be self-critical. I would say that we are not knowledgeable enough about the complexities of these cultures. Listen to the State Department and you'd think it wants (Muslims) to abandon their religious heritage. And that's not what (Iraqis) want. We're insensitive in that regard."

Sessions proposed an approach that supports Islamic culture rather than denigrating it.

" 'You have a great heritage," Sessions said should be the U.S. message. " 'You're a great people. We want to help you restore your greatness,' rather than, 'We're going to remake you in our image.' In the course of all that progress, they'll become more Western, no doubt. It's just how you approach it."

Sessions was skeptical of proposals to replace a central Iraqi government with three states dominated by, respectively, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

"Americans don't believe you have to separate ethnicity and religion," Sessions said. "That would be a retreat from our ideals. ... That could be the outcome. It's not a good outcome, far less than what we desire for Iraq. But that could bring some closure to it."

The U.S. war in Iraq, he said, suffered not only from a lack of cultural sensitivity, but from a surplus of confidence.

"Things went a lot better in Afghanistan. Maybe we got a little overconfident, thought Iraq would be easier than it's been."

While the next few months will be pivotal, Sessions said, he's not ready to give up in Iraq until he sees the results of the troop surge.

"I believe there's still a realistic chance that the central government can hold together," Sessions said.

"They could divide the oil; they could reconcile. That would be preferable."

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