Both the United States and Britain have indicated they are making plans to reduce the number of troops stationed in Iraq in the next year.
Pentagon officials said Monday it is too early to predict the specific size and timing of major reductions in U.S. troop levels. A similar statement came Monday from Prime Minister Tony Blair's office, which said Britain has not decided to withdraw troops from Iraq, although contingency planning is under way.
A leaked government memorandum shows Britain is considering scaling back its troop presence from 8,500 to 3,000 by the middle of 2006, saving nearly $1 billion annually.
The memo, marked “Secret — U.K. Eyes Only,” and signed by Britain’s Defense Secretary John Reid, also says there is a “strong U.S. military desire for significant force reductions.”
“Emerging U.S. plans assume that 14 out of 18 provinces could be handed over to Iraqi control by early 2006,” which would see the multinational force cut from 176,000 to 66,000.
British officials confirmed the authenticity of the document, first published by the newspaper The Mail on Sunday.
The Pentagon is eager to pull some of its 135,000 troops out of Iraq in 2006, partly because the counterinsurgency is stretching the Army and Marine Corps perilously thin as casualties mount and partly because officials believe the presence of a large U.S. force is generating tacit support for anti-American violence.
Troops won't be withdrawn this year
It appears highly unlikely that any significant numbers will be withdrawn before the end of the year. U.S. commanders expect the insurgency to remain at or near its current strength at least until after a scheduled October referendum on a new Iraqi constitution, followed by December elections for a new government.
Attempts by U.S. officials to predict the course of the insurgency have been off the mark, and officials have been forced more than once to scrap plans to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq. The force peaked at about 160,000 in January, when extra troops were needed to bolster security for the elections.
London and Washington are reluctant to set a timetable for withdrawing British troops from Iraq, fearing such a move would give heart to militants waging a bloody insurgency in Iraq.
No U.S. comment on memo
Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment directly on the leaked British memo Monday.
"It's not for me to speculate on when there might be a reduction in U.S. forces," he said, adding that U.S. officials have said repeatedly for months that their goal is to begin reductions in 2006 if conditions permit.
"We look at the conditions as being the determining factor as to what the U.S. presence there needs to be, and we have contingencies for an increased presence, a steady state, and also a decreased presence," Whitman said.
The memo, titled “Options for future U.K. force posture in Iraq,” sheds new light on British military planning. It sets out a timeframe for handing responsibility to Iraqi forces in specific towns in southern Iraq.
“We have a clear U.K. military aspiration to hand over to Iraqi control in al-Muthanna and Maysan provinces in October 2005 and in the other two multinational division south east provinces, Dhi Qar and Basra in April 2006,” the document adds.
‘Small scale ... by mid-2006’
“This in turn should lead to a reduction on the total level of U.K. commitment in Iraq to around 3,000 personnel, i.e., small scale, by mid-2006.”
The document suggested that U.S. military chiefs in Washington and U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq disagreed over the scale of troop reductions.
“There is a debate between the Pentagon/CENTCOM who favor a relatively bold reduction, and MNF-I (U.S. commanders in Iraq) whose approach is more cautious,” the memo reads.
The documents noted that further military analysis and discussion with allies about possible troop withdrawals was necessary.
“The Japanese reconstruction battalion will, for example, be reluctant to stay in al-Muthanna if force protection is solely provided by the Iraqis. The Australian position, which is highly influenced by the Japanese presence, may also be uncertain,” the memo reads.
Japan has about 550 troops in the city of Samawah on a humanitarian mission in support of Iraqi reconstruction. Some 1,400 Australian troops are deployed in and around Iraq. Earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister John Howard sent an additional 450 troops to protect the Japanese military engineers — breaking a long-standing pledge not to increase his country’s commitment.
London meeting later this month
Howard said Monday he and Blair would discuss Australia’s troop deployment in Iraq when they meet in London later this month.
“We have quite a significant contingent in Iraq already and that contingent will stay until it’s done its job,” Howard said.
Reid said Sunday the document was simply one of several updates examining possible scenarios for the war in Iraq. The document was not dated, but he has been defense secretary since May 6.
“We have made it absolutely plain that we will stay in Iraq for as long as is needed,” Reid said. “No decisions on the future force posture of U.K. forces have been taken.”
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that President Bush is relying on commanders in Iraq to judge when the time is right to adjust the level of U.S. forces, based in part on an assessment of how capable the U.S.-trained Iraqi government forces are of fighting the insurgency on their own.
The Pentagon missed a Monday deadline for submitting a report to Congress on progress in shifting security responsibilities to the Iraqis and projecting how many U.S. troops would be needed there next year. Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Congress was informed that the report is still in the works.
Bush administration officials and U.S. commanders are eager to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq as soon as possible — not least because of the psychological burden imposed by the presence of an occupation force.
Lt. Gen. John Vines, the commander in charge of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters last month there is a "certain element of tacit support" for anti-U.S. feeling among Iraqis that is derived from the presence of foreign forces. He suggested the U.S. might reduce by 20,00-25,000 troops sometime in 2006.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made the point recently that ultimately it will fall to the Iraqis themselves to defeat the insurgency.
"Insurgencies by their nature need to be defeated by the country, the people of the country," he said in a radio interview July 5. "A foreign occupying force really can't do that as effectively."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.