WASHINGTON (AP) - The Pentagon told Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton that her questions about how the U.S. plans to eventually withdraw from Iraq boosts enemy propaganda.
In a stinging rebuke to a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman responded to questions Clinton raised in May in which she urged the Pentagon to start planning now for the withdrawal of American forces.
A copy of Edelman's response, dated July 16, was obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
"Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia," Edelman wrote.
He added that "such talk understandably unnerves the very same Iraqi allies we are asking to assume enormous personal risks."
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines called Edelman's answer "at once outrageous and dangerous," and said the senator would respond to his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Clinton has privately and publicly pushed Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace two months ago to begin drafting the plans for what she said will be a complicated withdrawal of troops, trucks and equipment.
"If we're not planning for it, it will be difficult to execute it in a safe and efficacious way," she said then.
The strong wording of the response is unusual, particularly for a missive to a member of the Senate committee with oversight of the Defense Department and its budget.
Clinton aides said the letter ignored important military matters and focuses instead on political payback.
"Redeploying out of Iraq with the same combination of arrogance and incompetence with which the Bush administration deployed our young men and women into Iraq is completely unacceptable, and our troops deserve far better," said Reines, who said military leaders should offer a withdrawal plan rather than "a political plan to attack those who question them."
As she runs for president, the New York senator has ratcheted up her criticism of the Bush administration's war effort, answering critics of her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq invasion by saying she would end the war if elected president.
If she wins, Clinton may find herself overseeing such a withdrawal policy, but she is hardly alone in raising the issue.
Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana warned Thursday at a hearing that if U.S. military leaders and Congress "are not prepared for these contingencies, they may be executed poorly, especially in an atmosphere in which public demands for troop withdrawals could compel action on a political timetable."
Edelman's letter does offer a passing indication the Pentagon might, in fact, be planning how to withdraw, saying: "We are always evaluating and planning for possible contingencies. As you know, it is long-standing departmental policy that operational plans, including contingency plans, are not released outside of the department."
Edelman is the Undersecretary of defense for policy. He is also a former U.S. ambassador and one-time aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. During the 2004 campaign, Cheney told Iowa voters that electing the Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards would risk another terrorist attack.
Kerry jumped to Clinton's defense, deriding what he called smear tactics by the administration.
"They will say anything, do anything, and twist any truth to avoid accountability," said the Massachusetts senator.