BAGHDAD Iraqi leaders warned on Monday that an early U.S. troop withdrawal could tip the country into all-out civil war after The New York Times said debate was growing in the White House over a gradual draw-down of forces.
The stark comments from politicians across the sectarian divide followed a wave of weekend bombings and shootings in Iraq that killed 250 people.
"This could produce a civil war, partition of the country and a regional war. We might see the country collapse," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, told a news conference when asked about the newspaper report.
The Times cited U.S. administration officials and consultants as saying the White House feared the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President George W. Bush's Iraq strategy were "collapsing around them."
It said debate was intensifying over whether Bush should try to prevent more Republican defections by announcing his intention to begin a gradual troop pull-out from high-casualty areas.
The White House denied it was considering a troop withdrawal based on a "political judgment saying there was no debate over an immediate draw-down.
"The president has said many times, that as conditions required and merit, that there will be, in fact, withdrawals and also a pulling back from areas of Baghdad and so on," said spokesman Tony Snow.
"But the idea of trying to make a political judgment rather than a military judgment about how to have forces in the field is simply not true."
PRESSURE FROM CONGRESS
Bush faces intensifying pressure from Congress over Iraq as a growing number of lawmakers from his own Republican party join Democrats in calling for a withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Senate will this week hold what promises to be a contentious debate on the war's future and financing, before a crucial administration report on Iraq to Congress due by July 15.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the debate would begin with a vote, possibly on Tuesday, to set minimum rest times between deployments for troops in Iraq, but acknowledged he did not know whether he had enough votes.
"I think we will find the next couple of weeks, whether the Republicans who have said publicly they think the present course should change are willing to vote with us," said the Nevada Democrat.
Bush and his aides thought they could wait to begin talks about any change in strategy until September 15, when the U.S. commander in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador must present a report on Iraq's security and political progress, the Times said.
But the aides acknowledged it appeared forces were converging against Bush faster than had been expected.
More than 330 American soldiers were killed in Iraq from April to June, making it the deadliest quarter for U.S. troops since the March 2003 invasion. Overall, 3,606 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died.
Iraqi officials said the country's own security forces were not ready and warned that premature withdrawal of some of the 157,000 American troops could produce a security vacuum.
Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, speaking to Reuters by telephone, said:
"I would be very happy to see the last American soldier leave today ... We understand their worry about not seeing much political progress in Iraq. But the problem is: who will fill the security vacuum if these forces withdraw?"
Washington, which says Iran has made matters worse by supplying weapons and training to militants, held rare talks with its old foe in May, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he was prepared for another meeting.
The pressure on Bush from within his party comes only weeks after the arrival of the last of the 28,000 troop reinforcements he sent to Iraq for a major security crackdown.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell in Washington and Mussab Al-Khairalla and Alister Bull in Baghdad))