Image: Jim Miklasszewski
By Jim Miklaszewski Chief Pentagon correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/31/2005 7:26:47 PM ET 2005-02-01T00:26:47

Pentagon officials tell NBC News 12,000 U.S. troops could be home by summer, but they're making no plans to bring the rest of them home anytime soon.

Only a day after Iraqis cast their ballots, Democrats in Washington were demanding Monday the Bush administration come up with a plan to bring American troops home.

"We need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there," says Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. "So that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done."

But the White House warned Monday that any exit strategy cannot be based on a specific timetable — which would allow the enemy to simply wait out the Americans.

"Timetables send the wrong message to the terrorists because all the terrorists have to do is wait, and then they can plan and coordinate and prepare attacks around those timetables," says White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Instead, the administration says American troops can start coming home in significant numbers only when the Iraqis are able to fully govern and protect themselves. But that could take years.

Sen. Bill Nelson predicted Monday that two years from now 120,000 American troops will still be fighting in Iraq.

"Remember, it's going to take a while to get the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police forces trained, because when they say there are 120,000 of them trained there, that's fiction," says Nelson, D-Fla.

Nelson puts the number of fully trained Iraqi forces somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000.

Whatever the number, Pentagon officials claim the Iraqis turned in their best performance yet in providing security around polling places, but they had 150,000 American troops to back them up.

"It's important that our guys carry the main burden of the fighting until the Iraqis are really ready to take on the insurgents," says Middle East expert Patrick Clawson with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

One Pentagon official says the best defense against the insurgents is an aggressive offense, which for now, only American troops can deliver. Officials say Sunday's elections dealt a serious blow to Iraqi insurgents, but admit it's far from fatal.

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