Military leaders say further pullouts could resume early next year
WASHINGTON – Pentagon leaders have recommended to President Bush that the United States make no further troop reductions in Iraq this year, administration officials said Thursday.
The plan, delivered this week, calls for delaying additional drawdowns until late January or early February – after the Bush administration has left office. At that point, up to 7,500 of the approximately 146,000 troops in Iraq could be withdrawn, depending on conditions on the ground there. The reduction would coincide with new deployments to Afghanistan, officials said.
Defense officials described the recommendation as a compromise between those who believed that security gains in Iraq remained too tenuous to contemplate further withdrawals now, and those who proposed continuing the reductions that began last spring.
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, adopted a cautious approach in an assessment he presented last week to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Petraeus cited several areas of ongoing concern, including the postponement of provincial elections initially scheduled for this month, the disputed status of the northern city of Kirkuk, lingering ethno-sectarian conflicts, and questions surrounding the future of a local security force known as the Sons of Iraq.
There was also the factor of “a new commander coming in,” one official said. On Sept. 16, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno will replace Petraeus, who will become head of U.S. Central Command.
According to another military official close to the process, Petraeus and Odierno also considered the rising violence in Afghanistan as well as the overall strain on the U.S. military from the two conflicts. Under the proposal Gates and Mullen gave Bush in a video briefing Wednesday, at least one additional Army combat brigade – a total of about 3,500 troops – would be sent to Afghanistan, and a 1,000-troop Marine battalion due to depart there by the end of the year would be replaced.
Petraeus’ assessment was subjected to “serious and lengthy discussions,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, that included the service chiefs and Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, acting head of Central Command. “There was a collaborative process and they came to agreement … about the dramatic security gains in Iraq, the threats that still exist there and the uncertainties that remain,” Morrell said.
Morrell and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to provide details of the recommendations. “The president is now considering his options,” Perino said. In the past, Bush has frequently said he would follow Petraeus’ advice.
There had been widespread expectation that Petraeus would propose withdrawing at least an additional Army brigade before the end of the year. The last of the five brigades Bush ordered deployed last year, as part of a “surge” in U.S. troops, was withdrawn in July, leaving 15 brigades in place.