Feb 22 2007

Shelby warns Iraq pullout would add power to Iran

Birmingham News

By Stan Diel

A premature withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq almost certainly will embolden and shift power toward Iran, a Muslim country with fundamentalist leadership and an appetite for nuclear weapons, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Wednesday.

Shelby, speaking at a Rotary club meeting in downtown Birmingham, conceded that the Bush administration has made mistakes in Iraq, but said he opposes calls to bring U.S. troops home immediately.

"Iran will be the big winner" if the United States withdraws, he said. "It will change the political equilibrium of the whole area."

Shelby said that in 1998 he met with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program. Shelby, who at the time was chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he asked Khan how long it would be before Iran had nuclear weapons. Khan told him Iran could join the world's nuclear powers in as few as a dozen years.

"That was nine years ago," Shelby said.

In 2004, Pakistani officials determined that Khan and another senior Pakistani scientist, Mohammed Farooq, were secretly providing nuclear technology to Iran, both directly and through a black market based in Dubai.

Shelby also said Wednesday he voted against a Senate resolution opposing President Bush's plan to increase troop levels in Iraq because Democrats routinely opposed measures supported by Republicans.

"It sounds childish, but this is hardball politics," he said.

The Senate resolution was defeated Saturday. The senator said Americans should brace themselves for a long fight, even if troops come home from Iraq quickly. The West likely will be fighting Islamic fundamentalists for 50 to 100 years, he said.

As for the fight in Iraq, Shelby said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces there, told him it will become clear within six or seven months whether the increased number of troops ordered by Bush will be enough to stabilize Baghdad.

Speaking to a room full of business and academic leaders and elected officials, Shelby also touched on immigration, health care and the economy.

He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants and a universal heath care system, he said. He said Alabama's economy is the strongest it's been "in 50 years. Maybe ever."

Research done at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is part of Birmingham's economic engine, he said, and it's helping the state establish a positive image nationwide.