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Lieberman: Failure in Iraq would be 'catastrophic'

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Connecticut, said Wednesday that the U.S. should not immediately withdraw from Iraq.

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BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Speaking from Baghdad on his fourth trip to Iraq since July, Sen. Joseph Lieberman on Wednesday said failure in Iraq would be "catastrophic" for the United States and the entire Middle East, and that U.S. forces should not pull out before Iraqi forces are fully trained.

"The two extremes that are often described by different people here ... is that everything is going fantastic here in Iraq or that the country is about to collapse. In my opinion, neither one is true," he told CNN. "We are somewhere in between."

Lieberman, a senior Democrat from Connecticut, said Iraqis are striving to "put the nightmare of Saddam Hussein behind them," but still need U.S. help.

"They are making progress, but they are not where they need to be yet and that's what we have to help them to do before we can leave," he said.

"The cost of successfully completing our mission here will be large in terms of American lives lost and money spent, but the cost of failure here would be catastrophic for us in the U.S. and for the Iraqis, of course -- and I believe for the entire Middle East.

"And that's why we are going to continue to be here until we get to the point where the Iraqis can take it forward on their own, and I think we are making progress in that direction."

Lieberman's comments come amid rising calls from prominent Democrats for the United States to set a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home -- proposals the Bush administration and congressional Republicans have dismissed as a "cut-and-run" strategy that would embolden Iraqi insurgents.

U.S. plans to lower troop levels

However, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq "is clearly going to come down" because Iraqi forces are becoming more capable of taking over security functions themselves, but she stopped short of saying how many troops might leave or when they might come home.

"I suspect that the American forces are not going to be needed in the numbers that they are there for that much longer," Rice said in an interview with CNN's John King.

U.S. forces in Iraq number about 155,000. The base level for American troops is 138,000, but the force was boosted to provide additional security for next month's Iraqi elections.

A senior defense official has told CNN that a plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq early next year has been submitted to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Rumsfeld has not yet signed off on the plan, which would still require that certain conditions be met by the Iraqis before U.S. troops would leave, the senior official said.

Rice told CNN that Casey and the Iraqi government "are working from goals that they would like to train 'X' number of Iraqi forces by 'Y' time frame."

"They do have those metrics, and they review them every day, and from time to time, the president gets a chance to review them," Rice said. "But again, the numbers will not tell the whole story. The issue is, what are the Iraqis capable of doing, and they are capable of doing more and more."

Lieberman, who is known for his ability to reach across the aisle and work toward bipartisanship, said many Americans, including those in Congress, have questions "about what the future will be here in Iraq."

"From the view of Congress, there is almost no support for a hasty withdrawal before we complete our mission," he said.

But he said Congress wants the administration to provide details on a potential exit strategy.

"We want to work together with the administration on it," he said. "The Iraqi people don't want us here forever, and that's something we all agree on."

While in Baghdad, Lieberman met with Iraqi election officials and members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite movement. He is also to meet with the Interior Minister, tour reconstruction sites and spend Thanksgiving with U.S. troops.

"Look, the best news here is the political progress that is being made. You have a country that has clearly shown in the elections that it wants a better future," he said.

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