BAGHDAD - Iraqi leaders warned Monday the country could collapse if American troops leave too quickly as pressure mounts in Washington to draw down U.S. combat forces. More threats to Iraqi stability could be looming to the north with Turkish forces gathering in a possible prelude to a cross-border attack against Kurdish rebels.
Iraq's foreign minister said Turkey has massed 140,000 soldiers near Iraq - a figure immediately disputed by the Bush administration, which said satellite photos indicated no such buildup.
Nevertheless, Turkey has been deploying troops on the border for several months, and the country's foreign minister said last week that the government and military had agreed on detailed plans for a cross-border operation.
The White House said President Bush is not considering a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq now despite an erosion of support among Republicans for his war policy.
A report is due Sunday on whether the Iraqi government is meeting political, economic and security benchmarks that Bush set in January when he ordered 21,500 more U.S. combat forces to Iraq.
Three prominent Republicans - Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, George Voinovich of Ohio and Pete Domenici of New Mexico - have announced they can no longer support Bush's Iraq strategy and have called on the president to start reducing the military's role here.
That drew a sharp response from Iraq's foreign minister, who warned that a speedy U.S. military withdrawal could lead to all-out civil war, the collapse of the government and spread conflict across the Middle East.
'We have held discussion with members of Congress and explained to them the dangers of a quick pullout and leaving a security vacuum,' Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters. 'The dangers could be a civil war, dividing the country, regional wars and the collapse of the state.'
That sentiment was echoed by leading political figures from the Sunni Arab community, the group that had been the least supportive of the U.S. presence following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government in 2003.
'A hasty withdrawal ... would lead to a crisis that would obliterate all the positive aspects of the U.S. troop deployment,' said Salim Abdullah, spokesman for the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament.
Sunni legislator Adnan al-Dulaimi said a quick U.S. departure would 'destroy Iraq' and that the American presence was necessary to 'keep a balance between Iraqi sects' after the wave of Shiite-Sunni reprisal killings that plunged the country to the brink of all-out civil war last year.
'These (U.S.) forces have to stay until (the establishment of) an army and security forces ... capable of achieving peace in all parts of Iraq,' al-Dulaimi said.
Adding to security concerns, Zebari said 140,000 Turkish soldiers have massed at Iraq's northern border, where the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has bases and launches attacks on Turkish forces.