Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has indicated a willingness to consider a drawdown of one brigade of between 3,500 and 4,500 U.S. troops from Iraq early next year, with more to follow over the next months based on conditions on the ground, according to a senior U.S. official.
The pullouts would be contingent on the ability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to sustain what the administration heralds as recent gains in security and to make further gains in stabilizing Iraq. President Bush signaled the possibility of drawdowns after visiting Anbar province earlier this week. After meeting with Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, Bush said he was told that "if the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces."
Administration officials say the president will make the final decision about the overall strategy in Iraq, but they suggested that Bush is unlikely to depart significantly from recommendations made by top military officials. But on the eve of Petraeus's testimony before Congress early next week, there is still a diversity of opinion among top U.S. military officials on the eventual size and length of U.S. deployments. Petraeus's recommendations could fall on the conservative side of preferences among U.S. military planners, with the Joint Chiefs and Adm. William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. Central Command, concerned about the drain on U.S. forces and the heavy focus on Iraq, U.S. officials say.
The testimony of Petraeus and Crocker next week will follow a succession of recent analyses of the war that have painted a bleak picture of the Iraqi government's efforts to stand alone. The U.S. intelligence community has called the government dysfunctional and riven with sectarianism. The Government Accountability Office this week found little progress toward 18 measurable benchmarks that the president himself laid out in January. And, yesterday, retired Gen. James Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant, told lawmakers that significant numbers of U.S. troops could and should be pulled out of Iraq to spur Iraq's security forces to assume more control of their country.
Those reports have helped stoke a brewing rebellion among moderate lawmakers from both parties, who see an opportunity to drive their leaders toward compromise. Democratic leaders have signaled they are open to a more bipartisan approach to Iraq that would force the Bush administration to begin publicly planning for troop withdrawals but would stop short of requiring a firm timeline.
"Clearly, we don't have the numbers to override the president's vetoes, as has been clearly demonstrated," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), "nor do we expect to for a long time."
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has said that he could drop his demand for a firm troop withdrawal next spring to win GOP votes. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said this week that she will allow a vote on bipartisan troop legislation that, without requiring a redeployment, would force the administration to begin publicly planning for a withdrawal.
Even with the extension of deployments and the mobilization of reserves for multiple deployments, the troop buildup announced by Bush in January is already tentatively scheduled to draw down by significant numbers in March and April. Many U.S. officials expect the U.S. presence in Iraq to shrink to about 130,000 troops by next August; in effect, Petraeus is signaling it could be done a little faster, though not as fast as some in the Pentagon might want.
"The debate now is, do we want to be at 12 brigades in August or 15?" one administration official said recently.
The new effort at compromise by the Democratic leadership could alienate liberals. "You may end up with a revolt from my wing of the party if we do something that doesn't pass the smell test and, quite frankly, infuriates our constituents," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a firm opponent of the war.
But the bipartisan approach put Republican leaders on the defensive yesterday. They urged lawmakers to withhold judgment until next week, when they hear from Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker.
"Republicans have said all year that we will listen to those who have witnessed our successes and setbacks firsthand, and as next week's testimony approaches, we will await any recommendations, next steps or adjustments that may be needed in our strategy," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
With Republican leaders on the defensive and Democratic leaders unsure of the legislative path forward, moderates sense that their moment has arrived.
"The House Democratic leadership, in using the Iraq issue in the fall election, imposed on themselves a set of impossible tasks, by going way beyond what they could reasonably achieve under the Constitution, by creating the illusion that they could pull out quickly," said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.). "I think this creates an opportunity to step back from their confrontational stance and for Republicans to really reassess where this mission goes from here."
Several groups of centrists -- led by Reps. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.), Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), John Tanner (D-Tenn.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and English -- have begun quiet discussions about banding together to force the leaders of both parties out of their trenches.
"In both parties, there is a push that comes out of a pure desire for resolution," Kaptur said. "The question is how you get there. It's going to require a bipartisan effort."
Just before the August recess, more than a dozen lawmakers met to forge a new, centrist push. A major meeting is planned in the next two weeks to bring disparate, ad hoc groups together into a cohesive caucus that would be large enough to force showdowns, even if it meant using parliamentary tactics to embarrass the party leaders into concessions.
"If you had a group of people who were centrists and who were agreeing on issues strongly enough, something like that might practically happen," Lampson said, "but I don't think that's the goal."
If the group could hold firm, Pelosi would face a choice of governing with a centrist coalition from both parties or dealing with a full-scale revolt. But the liberal wing is not about to give in. Recent signals from Reid and other leaders that they might drop their demands for withdrawal timelines led some Democrats to begin firing back yesterday.
"Rather than picking up votes, by removing the deadline to get our troops out of Iraq, you have lost this Democrat's vote," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), a presidential candidate. "It is clear that half measures are not going to stop this president or end this war."
The issue that prompted the push was a bill, sponsored by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Tanner and English, that would give the Bush administration 60 days to apprise Congress of Pentagon planning for troop redeployments in Iraq. The bill was yanked from consideration in the House last month after a standoff between moderate Democrats and antiwar activists who opposed it. "They allowed a few people in the progressive caucus to have veto power over everything, and that can't be sustained," Abercrombie said.
In a letter to Pelosi and Hoyer, 10 Democrats and three Republicans this week demanded consideration of the Abercrombie-Tanner-English bill, saying: "Congress needs to make clear to the American people that we can and will work across the partisan divide on issues of such profound importance."
Pelosi said this week that the House will now bring the bill to a vote, but that it will be considered with another Iraq measure. That measure is likely to be designed to placate an antiwar wing that believes the Abercrombie measure will give Republicans a chance to tell their constituents that they are standing up to the president but will actually change nothing.
Many Democrats remain convinced that they should force Republicans to their side, not compromise on an issue as fundamental as ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq. "I have no problem with talking to moderates about alternatives, just as long as we're not just giving them cover and getting an agreement for the sake of agreement," McGovern said. "I'm out of patience."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.