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Daily Column
US Papers Thu: Pre-Surge Troops to Stay Put
Soldier suicides at record levels; McCain, Romney spar over Iraq; Mosul attack?
By CHRIS ALLBRITTON 01/31/2008 01:50 AM ET
Today's papers are chock-a-block with news concerning Iraq, whether it's from the GOP debate, on the ground, in the towns across America or in the halls of the Pentagon, there's a little something for everyone. But the biggest shout-out today goes to the Washington Post which has three Iraq-themed articles on its front page, which include two major stories: the coming pause in troop cuts and the record level of soldier suicides.

Military strategy
The Post's Thomas E. Ricks reports in the paper's first fronter that senior commanders in Iraq will recommend that troop cuts be "paused" after five combat brigades go home at the end of the summer, "making it more likely that the next administration will inherit as many troops in Iraq as there were before President Bush announced a 'surge' of forces a year ago." The troop freeze would hit in July when force levels hit about 130,000. This sets up a fight between the Pentagon and the White House. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and military commanders in the E-Ring want to keep the troops coming home to rebuild the Army's bench. President George W. Bush and his top field commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, want the pause to assess the security situation in Iraq. The length of the pause is under debate, ranging from a month to three months, but even a month's delay would keep the level of troops at about 130,000 until Bush leaves office due to the time it takes for a brigade to withdraw. Officials in Baghdad stress that while violence is down, but the American public doesn't grasp how tenuous the situation is. "We say, 'Violence is down, but' -- and no one hears the 'but,' " said Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who oversees the training and equipping of the Iraqi army and police. "The war is not over." Other officials say al Qaeda in Iraq, Shi'ite militias and Iranian agents were "knocked off their stride" by how effective U.S. Special Operations forces targeted them, and 2008 likely will see some new tactics used to counter the Americans. (Like waiting them out?)

Jim Michaels of USA Today also has the story that Petraeus is resisting any further drawdown after July.

Gordon Lubold of the Christian Science Monitor reports that permanent U.S. bases are an unlikely result of the new agreement being hammered out between Washington and Baghdad. But the next administration, whether Democrat or Republican, will likely agree to having a substantial number of troops in Iraq for "at least some years." The question is whether Bush can avoiding bringing Congress into the mix. If the White House negotiates a plain old Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), Congress can be cut out. But the agreement being discussed sounds more like a treaty, and the Constitution says the Senate must approve of any treaties. At any rate, most observers say permanent bases are a bad idea, as it would feed into the jihadi narrative that the U.S. continues to occupy Iraq. More likely is a force of 60,000 to 80,000 for five years and then a dramatic reduction. "Any presence like that over the long term, like a decade, is a bad idea," said Colin Kahl, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University in Washington. "That will inevitably feed the narrative the jihadi movement has about our goals in the region."

Over there
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Alissa J. Rubin of The New York Times reports that Iraqi troops are massing in Mosul while a Turkmen political group in Kirkuk threatened to take up arms if the kidnapping and killing of their people didn't stop. Also in Mosul a Koranic scholar was killed. The Turkmen Front, the main Turkmen political group called for establishing a Turkmen force to be part of the Iraqi Army that would protect Turkmen areas. In Salahuddin province, an IED killed two people in a car carrying Iraqi journalists as they drove to Samarra. The U.S. Army has started an investigation into the deaths of "several" Iraqis after U.S. soldiers had detained them.

Home front
Dana Priest writes the second fronter for the Post, reporting on the alarming phenomenon of increased suicides among soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She leads with the story of Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, who was in psychiatric outpatient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Whiteside, a model officer, was waiting for the Army to decide whether she would be court-martialed for endangering another soldier and turning a gun on herself last year in Iraq. She attempted to kill herself on Monday, swallowing dozens of pills. She was taken to the emergency room and is now stable. The charges against her have been dismissed. Priest writes that Whiteside is part of the alarming trend that suicides among active duty soldiers has reached their highest levels since the Army started keeping records in 1980. In 2007, 121 soldiers killed themselves, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006. The number of attempted suicides and self-inflicted injuries has jumped six-fold since the Iraq war began. Last year, about 2,100 soldiers attempted suicide or hurt themselves, she writes, compared with about 350 in 2002. These human tragedies are yet more examples of the psychological toll years of warfare are taking on the armed forces exacerbated by the lack of preparation by the Pentagon and the Veterans Administration as the wars have dragged on. Over the past year, four high-level commissions have recommended reforms in mental health care for soldiers, and Congress has approved millions of dollars to make those changes, but little seems to have been done. Even the historical trend of declining suicide rates when soldiers are in overseas conflict has reversed. The suicide rate was 9.8 per 100,000 in 2001, the lowest on record. In 2006, it was 17.5 per 100,000.

The Times' Benedict Carey reports on a new military study that finds that one in six combat troops returning from Iraq have suffered at least one concussion, an injury that could heighten the risk of developing PTSD. The study, in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that "soldiers who had concussions were more likely than those with other injuries to report a variety of physical and mental symptoms in their first months back home, including headaches, poor sleep and balance problems." They were also more likely to develop PTSD, which can exacerbate many of the other problems they're having.

Iraq Debate
In the third A1 Post story of the day, Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin cover the GOP debate in California last night, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney going at each other over Iraq. It boils down to McCain accusing Romney of supporting a timetable for troop withdrawals. Romney denied the slander and challenged McCain to a dual to settle it. OK, not really, but he got mighty testy at the idea that someone might be twisting his words to use against him. Observers expressed shock that such tactics might be used in a political campaign. (Also not really.) Romney claimed he "never, ever" backed a timetable while McCain said, "Of course he supported a timetable."

What did Romney really say? Let's go to the tape, which is exactly what Michael Luo of the Times does. In a "Good Morning America" interview last spring, Romney said he believed that Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should have "a series of timetables and milestones" that they discuss among themselves but do not announce. Luo calls McCain's accusation misleading.

The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Holmes and Alex Frangos cover the debate as does Matt Kelley of USA Today. The Journal notes that McCain's successful shifting of the debate from the economy to Iraq mirrored his strategy in Florida, leading him to win the battleground state.

IN OTHER COVERAGE

New York Times
A film about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, Errol Morris' "Standard Operating Procedure," will become the first documentary to enter the Berlin International Film Festival next month.

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