WASHINGTON - The Pentagon's top military officer said yesterday that a specific time frame for withdrawing US combat troops from Iraq could jeopardize political and economic progress, leading to dangerous consequences.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the agreement between President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq to set a "general time horizon" for bringing more troops home from the war was a sign of "healthy negotiations for a burgeoning democracy."
"I think the strategic goals of having time horizons are ones that we all seek because eventually we would like to see US forces draw down and eventually all come home," said Mullen, who appeared on "Fox News Sunday."
But Mullen said the best way to determine troop levels, he said, is to assess the conditions on the ground and to consult with American commanders - the mission Bush has given him.
"Should that mission change, and we get a new president, and should those conditions be conditions that get generated or required in order to advise a future president, I would do so accordingly," Mullen said. "Based on my time in and out of Iraq in recent months, I think the conditions-based assessments are the way to go and they're very solid. We're making progress and we can move forward accordingly based on those conditions."
Maliki was quoted by a German magazine over the weekend as saying US troops should leave "as soon as possible" and he called Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's suggestion of 16 months "the right time frame for a withdrawal." Later, his chief spokesman said in a statement that the prime minister's comments were "not conveyed accurately."
Asked about the possibility of withdrawing all combat troops within two years, Mullen said, "I think the consequences could be very dangerous."
"It hard to say exactly what would happen," Mullen said. "I'd worry about any kind of rapid movement out and creating instability where we have stability. We're engaged very much right now with the Iraqi people."
"The Iraqi leadership is starting to generate the kind of political progress that we need to make," he said.
"The economy is starting to move in the right direction. So all those things are moving in the right direction," Mullen said.
The military buildup in Iraq that began more than 18 months ago has ended.
In recent days, the last of the five additional combat brigades sent in by Bush last year has left the country.