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Delay decision on Iraq cuts, Petraeus says

The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has recommended that decisions on the contentious issue of reducing the main body of the American troops in Iraq be put off for six months.
/ Source: The New York Times

The top American commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, has recommended that decisions on the contentious issue of reducing the main body of the American troops in Iraq be put off for six months, American officials said Sunday.

General Petraeus, whose long-awaited testimony before Congress will begin Monday, has informed President Bush that troop cuts may begin in mid-December, with the withdrawal of one of the 20 American combat brigades in Iraq, about 4,000 troops. By August, the American force in Iraq would be down to 15 combat brigades, the force level before Mr. Bush’s troop reinforcement plan.

The precise timing of such reductions, which would leave about 130,000 troops in Iraq, could vary, depending on conditions in the country. But the general has also said that it is too soon to present recommendations on reducing American forces below that level because the situation in Iraq is in flux. He has suggested that he wait until March to outline proposals on that question.

Many Democratic lawmakers have demanded deep troop cuts as well as a timetable for making the reductions, and there has been concern within some quarters of the Pentagon about the stress of repeated deployments. The effect of General Petraeus’s recommendations would be to begin troop reductions somewhat earlier than many experts had anticipated, while deferring deliberations on more fundamental troop issues. In effect, the much-awaited September debate in Congress over Iraq would become a prelude for another set of potentially difficult deliberations next year.

On Monday, General Petraeus is to begin two days of hearings, along with Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq. The commander is expected to present a series of military statistics that indicate that some progress has been made toward reducing violence in Baghdad.

A letter the general wrote to his troops on Friday outlines some of the arguments he is likely to use before Congress. The general conceded that the hope that Iraqi leaders would take advantage of the American military’s effort to tamp down violence to make political headway “has not worked out as we had hoped.” But he asserted that American forces had achieved “tactical momentum,” and stressed that American troops were forging successful alliances with local Sunni tribal leaders.

While the critics have cited the lagging progress of the Iraqi government and the reduced but still substantial violence as reasons to abandon the current strategy, General Petraeus acknowledges those factors in making his case for more time.

A White House official said Mr. Bush and General Petraeus had not spoken since they saw each other in Anbar Province last Monday. But the general’s recommendations on how to proceed on reducing the force have been outlined to Mr. Bush and senior officers. “General Petraeus has made recommendations on the pace by which the surge forces can run their course, and he will explain to Congress his recommendation on when the withdrawals without replacement can begin, based on certain assumptions about the situation on the ground,” said an officer who has heard the commander’s recommendations.

“He has also argued that recommendations on reductions below the presurge force levels would be premature at this time, and that recommendations on such adjustments should wait until March 2008,” the officer added.

Mr. Bush has said he intends to address the nation this week about the recommendations by General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker. From the start, General Petraeus, more so than many lawmakers, has viewed the attempt to bring security to Iraq as a long-term effort. The classified campaign plan he prepared with Mr. Crocker calls for restoring security in local areas by the summer of 2008. “Sustainable security” is to be established nationwide by the summer of 2009.

Still, General Petraeus is expected to disclose plans to reduce troop levels in mid-December with the withdrawal of a combat brigade. American military officials said the unit was deployed in Iraq before Mr. Bush’s troop reinforcement plan and the troop reduction would be accomplished by not replacing it.

The decision to start the reduction before the end of the year follows an appeal by Senator John W. Warner, a senior Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the Bush administration take the first steps toward a limited reduction of troops by year’s end as a way of signaling Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki that the American commitment to Iraq is not open-ended.

American officers asserted that a variety of logistical considerations played the key role in the timing of the planned troop reduction. Part of the concern was to minimize the simultaneous shuffling of combat units.

Reducing the force to 15 combat brigades by July or August would require some repositioning of American forces in Iraq — what the military calls “battlefield geometry.” The intent is to keep substantial forces in and around Baghdad. But American forces are expected to be reduced in northern and western Iraq.

Even as American commanders plan to reduce the overall force, they have stressed that the troop reductions could be adjusted or delayed if violence increases. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking American commander in Iraq, has said one important factor being weighed is whether attacks increase during the approaching Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as has happened in the past.

“Ramadan is big,” General Odierno said last week. “So far in the 30 days before Ramadan, violence has been going down.”

“If we can continue to do what we are doing, we’ll get to such a level where we think we can do it with less troops,” he added.

Some Pentagon officials would like to see the force in Iraq cut below 15 brigades to reduce the stress on the military and make it possible for soldiers and marines to serve shorter tours.

But some military officers in Iraq say that establishing a schedule at this point for reducing forces below 15 brigades is difficult because the Iraq situation is uncertain. While sectarian attacks are down according to military statistics, the gains are potentially reversible and the level of violence is still high. The level of insurgent and militia activity in coming months is difficult to predict.

Nor is it clear whether the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government will fully embrace the Americans’ new effort to work with Sunni tribal groups, and how much such alliances might help quell the violence. Efforts at political reconciliation have been stymied at the national level, but American officials still hope to see some modest progress.

The broader issue is whether political reconciliation is possible. Gen. George W. Casey, Jr., the chief of staff of the Army and General Petraeus’s predecessor, recently said at a breakfast sponsored by Government Executive magazine that the American reinforcements had produced “a temporary tactical effect” and expressed skepticism that Iraqi leaders would overcome differences, the publication reported.

But General Petraeus and his officers have argued that the American reinforcements protect the population, essential to a counterinsurgency strategy.