The outgoing American ambassador to Iraq has warned that a quick U.S. withdrawal from the country could "run severe risks."
In his final news conference before retiring, Ryan Crocker said he gave that assessment to President Barack Obama in a conference call from Baghdad on Wednesday.
During the presidential campaign, Obama promised to speed up the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq.
Crocker arrived in Iraq during the darkest days of the sectarian conflict in the country, just before the so-called surge — when U.S. forces pushed into Baghdad to stop the bloodletting.
Along with U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, Crocker is credited with changing American policy in Iraq and helping to bring it back from civil war.
In his final months, Crocker helped negotiate a security agreement with Iraq that stipulates the total withdrawal of U.S. forces in the country in three years.
Obama has indicated he wants to speed up that timetable.
In Thursday's news conference in Baghdad, Crocker sounded a note of caution.
"The president, as I noted, has spoken of a responsible withdrawal. There will be a withdrawal — that's what the agreement says. If it were to be a precipitous withdrawal, that could be very dangerous," Crocker said.
There are currently about 140,000 American troops deployed in Iraq, and Crocker said they are fulfilling a vital mission.
"Iraq is a far more stable place than it was 18 or 24 months ago. But there is still a ways to go, clearly a continuing need for our security support," he said. "Because, as we have tragically seen, there are still elements out there, particularly al-Qaida, capable of delivering devastating attacks."
Crocker said 2009 will be a key year in Iraq. Provincial elections will be taking place next week, followed by a series of other votes culminating in national elections at the end of the year.
"It is a year of elections. The conduct and outcome of those elections are going to be very important for the country, in particular that they be, and be perceived as, free and fair in at least a general sense. They are not going to be perfect elections. I think we all know that. But they have to be credible elections," he said.
Other areas of concern Crocker noted are Iraq's continuing problem with corruption, Iran's role in Iraq, and the rule of law in the country.
A veteran diplomat and Arabist, Crocker's final assessment of Iraq was couched in characteristically careful tones.
"Iraq's development over the last couple of years has been hugely impressive, but as I wind down my time here, I am not going to leave you with any sweeping prophesies or claims of millennial developments. As dramatic as some of these things have been, there is still substantial distance to go. It's going to be three yards at a time," he said.
Crocker will leave Iraq in February.