updated 8/21/2007 6:41:41 AM ET 2007-08-21T10:41:41

U.S. military officials are narrowing the range of Iraq strategy options and appear to be focusing on reducing the U.S. combat role in 2008 while increasing training of Iraqi forces, a senior military official told The Associated Press Monday.

The military has not yet developed a plan for a substantial withdrawal of forces next year. But officials are laying the groundwork for possible overtures to Turkey and Jordan on using their territory to move some troops and equipment out of Iraq, the official said. The main exit would remain Kuwait, but additional routes would make it easier and more secure for U.S. troops leaving western and northern Iraq.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because internal deliberations are ongoing, emphasized that the discussions do not prejudge decisions yet to be made by President Bush. Those decisions include how long to maintain the current U.S. troop buildup and when to make the transition to a larger Iraqi combat role.

Brigades to be withdrawn
It is widely anticipated that the five extra Army brigades that were sent to the Baghdad area this year will be withdrawn by late next summer. But it is far less clear whether the Bush administration will follow that immediately with additional drawdowns, as many Democrats in Congress are advocating.

Bush has mentioned publicly that he likes the idea, first proposed late last year by the Iraq Study Group, of switching the emphasis of U.S. military efforts from mainly combat to mainly support roles. But he also has said that this should not happen until Baghdad in particular is stable enough to enable Iraqi political leaders to make hard choices about reconciling rival interests among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

There are now 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, of which 30,000 have arrived since February as part of Bush’s revised strategy to stabilize Baghdad and to push Iraqi leaders to build a government of national unity.

Military efforts to stabilize the country effort have made strides in recent months, but political progress has lagged.

In a joint statement Monday, Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., said that while the military buildup has “produced some credible and positive results,” the political outlook is darker. The senators said that during their visit to Iraq last week they told Iraqi leaders of American impatience with the lack of political progress, and “impressed upon them that time has run out in that regard.”

In a separate telephone interview with reporters, Levin urged the Iraqi assembly to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace his government with one that is less sectarian and more unifying.

Cannot dictate
Speaking to reporters in Washington by phone from Tel Aviv, Levin acknowledged that while there is broad frustration with the lack of action by the al-Maliki government, U.S. officials cannot dictate a change in leadership there. He said he and Warner did not meet with al-Maliki when they were in Iraq this time.

In response to Levin’s remarks about dumping al-Maliki, Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, noted that Iraqi leaders have been holding talks in recent days on ways to move toward a unified government.

“We urge them to come together, reach agreements and show the Iraqi people and the rest of the world their determination to create a stable and prosperous Iraq,” Johndroe told reporters, adding that the administration believes al-Maliki is capable of moving the talks to a successful conclusion.

Under pressure even from members of his own party to change direction in Iraq, Bush is expected to decide his next steps after hearing in September from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, on what the U.S. troop buildup has accomplished.

Petraeus and Crocker are likely to present their views to Congress on Sept. 11 or 12, said Johndroe, the National Security Council spokesman. Johndroe said White House officials are consulting with congressional leaders this week on setting a date for the testimony.

Bush also will receive advice and recommendations from Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as the Joint Chiefs and Adm. William Fallon, the top commander for American forces in the Middle East.

Limited options
Bush’s options are limited, politically and practically. The Army and Marine Corps do not have the capacity to increase troop levels, or even to maintain the current number beyond next spring. With the 2008 presidential election approaching, it’s not so much a question of whether troop levels will be cut but when and how much.

U.S. commanders in Iraq believe they are making substantial progress toward stabilizing Baghdad and other contested parts of the country — including in Anbar province in western Iraq where the insurgency has weakened noticeably this year. But they are dubious about the ability of Iraq’s political leaders to take advantage of the improved security in ways that promote political reconciliation.

Petraeus and other senior commanders have said in recent weeks that the U.S. troop buildup will end in 2008, but Petraeus has not yet recommended a follow-on strategy to Bush. Much depends on judgments about how soon Iraqi security forces will be ready to assume a bigger role, as well as the likelihood of political progress.

Speaking on Monday to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., Petraeus said Americans should not underestimate the efforts of the Iraqi army and police.

In some areas, partnerships between U.S. forces and Iraqi soldiers are “quite robust,” Petraeus said. He noted that Iraqi losses have been three times as high as those suffered by the U.S.-led coalition.

“There should be no question that Iraqi soldiers and police are dying for their country,” Petraeus said.

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