NBC News and news services
updated 4/2/2008 7:57:51 PM ET 2008-04-02T23:57:51

The Pentagon's ability to reduce troop levels in Iraq will hinge on how well the Iraqis handle violent outbreaks like the recent operations in Basra, the Pentagon's top military officer said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, three retired generals testified on Capitol Hill that the military faces the likelihood of increasing chaos in Iraq.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not label the operation a win or defeat for the Iraqi troops. But he said it did not indicate a need for more U.S. troops in Iraq, and would not likely change the immediate recommendations Gen. David Petraeus will deliver to Congress next week.

Mullen said officials are still assessing the mixed results of the Basra operation, in which Iraqi-led forces battled Shiite militias. The fighting has fallen off, and violence had dipped to pre-clash levels.

The importance of the Basra combat in the U.S. military evaluations was underscored, however, by the fact that Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, delayed his travel to Washington for several days this week to assess the situation.

"It's very clear that if we had this kind of violence for a sustained period of time, those are the kinds of conditions on the ground that must go into (the) assessment of, 'Do I have enough troops to do this?'" Mullen told a Pentagon press conference. "This was a particularly violent week."

Waiting for Petraeus' estimates
Many of Petraeus' expected recommendations have been rolled out over the past two months, including plans for a pause in troop cuts after July when the last of the five additional brigades ordered to Iraq last year have come home.

It is expected that Petraeus will give Congress some estimate of how many U.S. troops he believes will be needed in Iraq through the end of the year, and how many more brigades could be withdrawn without sending in replacements.

There are now 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 18 combat brigades — down from a peak of 20 brigades for much of the past year. By the end of July, military leaders have said those numbers would fall to 140,000 troops, including 15 combat brigades.

While Mullen praised Iraq leaders for taking on the Basra assault, he acknowledged concerns that it could have been planned better, and that some Iraqi forces did not perform well.

"We've been looking forward to ... a time when the Iraqi security forces would, in fact, take the lead and be aggressive in terms of providing for their own security," said Mullen.

The U.S. sent more than 20,000 extra troops to Iraq last year in an attempt to quell mounting violence. That effort has seen success in Baghdad, but the recent fighting in Basra threatened those security gains.

'Chaos no matter what we do'
On Capitol Hiill, a panel of leading military experts offered varying opinions on a post-surge exit strategy from Iraq, with all seemingly agreeing that the military faces an increasingly chaotic situation there.

Retired Gen. William Odom, a Vietnam veteran who's been sharply critical of the Iraq war, gave the most dire assessment, saying the surge "is prolonging instability." He bluntly predicted "chaos no matter what we do."

Odom even predicted Baghdad could wind up looking like Dien Bien Phu, where the French were defeated by guerrillas in Vietnam in the 1950s.

Odom said the U.S. should consider leaving immediately. "You get out of Iraq in boats and airplanes, and you drive down to the harbor to get into the boats and you don't have a much better choice than that."

The other witnesses were not as pessimistic, but acknowledged tough challenges for the U.S. strategy in Iraq.

Can U.S. troops train Iraqi force?
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News military analyst, said the Iraqi government "in a general sense is completely dysfunctional. "

He and retired Gen. Robert Scales said there aren't adequate numbers of troops to continue the war at its current pace. They argued the U.S. military should be focused on immediately training the Iraqi troops to take over the fight.

Scales warned that the battlefield gains of the surge may be lost if the U.S. fails in the training mission.

Odom, however, argued that without political consensus among Iraqis, "no matter how you train the troops they're not going to fight successfully."

McCaffrey said the U.S. military leadership had dramatically improved the prospects for success in Iraq, but added "the events of the last week underscore the chaotic nature inside the three major factions."

Problems in Basra
Shiite militias largely have held sway over Basra, the country's oil capital, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad and a major commercial center of 2 million people. Government efforts to assert control have been unsuccessful.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had personally overseen the attempt last week to drive out the militias, launching it with the promise of "a decisive and final battle." He returned to Baghdad Tuesday politically battered.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner conceded there were problems in Basra.

"Overall the majority of the Iraqi security forces performed their mission, though some were not up to the task," he said at a news conference in Baghdad.

NBC News producer Scott Foster contributed to this report from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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