BAGHDAD — A hasty departure of U.S. troops from Iraq would carry severe risks, including bolstering al-Qaida and threatening Iraqi progress toward a functioning society, the outgoing U.S. ambassador said Thursday.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker spoke to reporters a day after he and the top U.S. commander in Iraq briefed President Barack Obama on the situation here.
Obama, who campaigned on a promise to end the war, asked the Pentagon to do whatever additional planning was necessary to "execute a responsible military drawdown from Iraq," the White House said Wednesday.
Crocker, who is retiring after a 30-year diplomatic career, declined to say what he and Gen. Ray Odierno told the president during the video hookup. But he noted that the president was committed to a responsible pullout of the more than 140,000-strong U.S. force.
"A precipitous withdrawal runs some very severe risks," Crocker said, including a possible revival of al-Qaida and encouraging "neighbors with less than benign intentions" to influence events in Iraq.
He said al-Qaida had been "much weakened" due to setbacks on the battlefield and a loss of support within the Sunni Arab community.
"But as long as they can cling to some handhold here, they are going to keep trying to literally fight their way back," Crocker said.
"And perhaps most important it would have a chilling effect on Iraqis," he said of a quick U.S. departure. "I think the spirit of compromise, of accommodation, of focus on institutional development _ all of that would run the risk of getting set aside."
Iraqi officials have said they hope the new administration will stick by the timeline set down in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that took effect this month. The deal provides for U.S. combat troops to leave the cities by the end of June, with all U.S. troops gone from the country by 2012.
"We are prepared for the worst possibilities," Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi told reporters Thursday. "We cannot leave our country whether these forces withdraw or not. We have plans for the worst possibilities and we mean it."
The chairman of the parliamentary defense committee, Abbas al-Bayati, said Wednesday that Iraq has drawn up contingency plans in case Obama orders a speeded-up withdrawal.
Obama called during the campaign for a pullout of all U.S. combat troops from within 16 months of taking office.
Although Crocker spoke of the risks of a "precipitous withdrawal," he said that "it's clear that's not the direction in which this is trending."
A Sunni insurgent group, the Mujahedeen Army, said Obama's plans don't seem much different from those of former President George W. Bush and urged him to remove all U.S. troops, according to the Washington-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorism messages.
In a statement posted on Islamic extremist Web sites, the group said if Obama wants to resolve problems left by Bush, "take your soldiers, all your soldiers, and (those) who came with them as agents, and fully withdraw them."
Crocker said security and political progress in Iraq "has been significant" but "we can't underestimate the challenges and the time it will take to work through those."
U.S. officials are closely watching a series of elections this year as an indicator whether Iraq has turned the corner and is on the way to lasting stability.
Voters in most of the country will choose ruling provincial councils Jan. 31, with parliamentary balloting expected by the end of the year.
Provincial balloting will not be held in the three Kurdish self-ruled provinces until the regional legislature approves an election law. Voting was postponed indefinitely in the province around Kirkuk because the area's ethnic groups could not agree on a power-sharing formula.
"The conduct and outcome of those elections will be very important for the country, in particular that they be and be perceived as free and fair _ in at least a general sense," Crocker said. "They aren't going to be perfect elections. We all know that. But it is important that they be credible elections."