WASHINGTON – Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday that he expects to recommend a further reduction in U.S. troop levels in Iraq this fall, before voters head to the polls to elect the next president.
The general’s projection of an additional cutback in American forces comes a little more than a month after he told Congress that he was recommending to the president a 45-day “pause” in July before U.S. officials review once again whether there should be a further drawdown.
The Pentagon is in the midst of a scale-back of five Army brigade combat teams and two Army Marine expeditionary units – troops that were added as part of the president’s surge – that is to be completed this summer.
In comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Petraeus said he hopes to recommend a further troop reduction before his expected promotion in September to become the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.
“My sense is I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for further reductions,” Petraeus told the Senate panel, which is considering the four-star general’s appointment as the new Central Command chief. “I don’t want to imply that that means a BCT (brigade combat team) or major combat formation, although it could. But I do believe that there will be certain assets that, as we are already looking at the picture right now, we’ll be able to recommend can be either redeployed or not deployed to the theater in the fall.”
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who took a break from the presidential campaign trail to attend the hearing, asked Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who is in line to succeed Petraeus as the top commander in Iraq, if he expects a need for a larger U.S. troop presence in Iraq in the lead-up to the provincial elections scheduled to be held in October. The Pentagon previously boosted troop levels in late 2005 to help safeguard national elections in Iraq.
But Odierno said he didn’t think it was likely more troops would be needed.
“Senator, I will never say never, but my assessment now is with the progress we’re making, the progress we’re seeing in the Iraqi security forces and what I’m seeing is the security environment on the ground … I do not believe we will need an increase,” Odierno said.
In the new job, Petraeus would be charged with overseeing the wars in Iraq and part of Afghanistan as well as developments in 25 other nations that fall under the purview of Central Command, or Centcom. The region includes such hot spots as Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan.
After Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Petraeus’ nomination last month, Democrats said the general would face tough questions at his Senate confirmation hearing about how the administration’s Iraq policy – to which he is closely tied – is preventing the U.S. military from placing more troops and greater focus on Afghanistan.
But both Petraeus and Odierno, whose nomination also must be confirmed by the Armed Services Committee, were showered with praise by the senators for their continued commitment to the U.S. military. Petraeus has spent about four years in Iraq since the start of the war, and Odierno has served more than 30 months in Iraq.
“Regardless of one’s view of the wisdom of the policy that took us to Iraq in the first place and has kept us there over five years, we owe Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno a debt of gratitude for the commitment, determination and strength that they brought to their areas of responsibility,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., committee chairman. “And regardless how long the administration may choose to remain engaged in the strife in that country, our troops are better off with the leadership these two distinguished soldiers provide.”