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Saturday, August 18, 2007

SEOUL — The top U.S. military officer said Thursday he doesn’t know what Iraq will look like in 10 years, but the country’s future depends on whether its political and religious leaders work for peace.

“When that happens, I believe the transformation will be significant and relatively fast. Until that happens, it will not change,” Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in response to a soldier’s question at a town hall meeting at Yongsan Garrison.

Pace met with troops at Osan Air Base and Yongsan during his last expected visit to South Korea before he retires on Oct. 1.

The general, who recently toured Iraq, said leaders there had made the formerly embattled Anbar province “almost a model province” and had drastically improved security in the city of Ramadi, where “I wouldn’t have felt safe in a tank three months ago.”

“I am hopeful that that example can inspire others in Iraq,” he said.

During his meeting at Osan, Pace said that if the United States begins pulling out of Iraq soon, America’s enemies may believe they can wait out U.S. military forces to achieve victory.

Enemies, he said, “watch our actions more than our words. ... As long as our enemies are trying to kill us and destroy our way of life, we are in a war. If we decide to leave [Iraq], it will not take us out of a war.”

Lt. Col. Curtis Walker, director of operations for the 5th Reconnaissance Squadron, asked a question on behalf of his nephew, a combat medic serving his second 15-month tour in Iraq in four years.

“When are we going to get him some relief?” Walker asked the president’s top military adviser.

Pace said servicemembers like Walker’s nephew are buying time for both the U.S. military and the Iraqi Security Forces and government leaders.

The Army’s longer deployments have come as Iraqi Security Forces were unprepared in late 2006 to take over more responsibility for protecting their home, Pace said. At that time, Pace and others military leaders recommended that President Bush add more troops to Iraq and increase the size of the military. Bush accepted both recommendations, Pace said.

The Army now is trying to add 7,000 new soldiers each year, and the Marine Corps is growing by 5,000 each year. He said the military also is trying to readjust worldwide, to bolster troops in Iraq and Afghanistan by drawing on existing forces elsewhere.

The ultimate plan is to have troops deploy for 12 months and be at home for 24 months, Pace said. “But it will take some time to get there,” he added.

Pace also said during the hourlong Osan town hall meeting that not every country sees the terrorist threat the same way he does. He encouraged what he called “the international community” to continue to talk about how to combat terrorism.

“Right now, there is a great discrepancy between countries as far as how we all see the threat,” he said. “We see it, from our perception, based on what happened on 9/11. Others see it differently.”

Pace told troops at Yongsan that their presence in South Korea may get little attention, but they do make a difference in the region.

“When you look at the newspaper and you’re not in it, and you look on the television and you’re not on it, I hope you take a minute to congratulate yourself,” he said.

Also Thursday, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun awarded Pace the Order of the National Security Merit Tongil Medal, South Korea’s highest medal for those who have contributed to national security.

Pace, on a two-day trip here before his retirement in October, was recognized for his role in fostering the alliance between the two allies.

Pace was scheduled to meet with servicemembers in Japan on Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Pace in South Korea

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also discussed the draft, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and budget cuts during his Thursday visit to South Korea.

The draftThe Marine general said no high-ranking U.S. military officials are discussing the possibility of a military draft. President Bush’s new war adviser, Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, suggested last week in an interview with National Public Radio that a draft might relieve the frequent tours for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan that have stressed the all-volunteer force, according to The Associated Press.

GuantanamoPace said the U.S. military wants to close its detainment camp on Cuba.

“We do not want to become jailers for the world, and the U.S. military would like nothing better than to close down Guantanamo,” he said.

To close the base, Pace said, the U.S. would have to send prisoners back to their home nations, which may not accept them, or into the United States, where their presence could present legal issues.

Budget cutsCurrently, one proposal in the military’s budget includes cutting the Air Force by 40,000 people, a $4 billion savings, Pace said. The cuts probably won’t be that high, he said.

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