Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday raised the possibility of cutting U.S. troop levels in Iraq to around 100,000 by the end of next year, well beyond the cuts President Bush has approved.
Stressing that he was expressing his hope, not an administration plan, Gates said it was possible conditions in Iraq could improve enough to merit much deeper troop cuts than are currently scheduled for 2008.
Asked at a news conference whether he was referring to going from today's level of about 169,000 to about 100,000 U.S. troops by the end of next year, Gates replied, "That would be the math."
"My hope is that when he does his assessment in March that General Petraeus will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of the drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year," Gates said.
The cutbacks that were promised by Bush by next summer, however, may not reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to levels before the buildup of forces he ordered in January. It was unclear whether Gates' cuts, if enacted, would lower the number of forces in Iraq to pre-'surge' levels.
Also Friday, The White House told Congress that Iraqi leaders gained little new ground on key military and political goals, a discouraging assessment a day after Bush announced that progress justified keeping a large U.S. military presence there.
Planned cuts misleading?
Bush approved the redeployment of five Army combat brigades and three Marine contingents between now and July 2008, but that does not account for thousands of support forces — including military police and an Army combat aviation brigade — that were sent as "enablers" and that apparently will stay longer.
For example, the headquarters staff of the 3rd Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, was sent in April to establish a new operational command area south and southeast of Baghdad. They were not counted among the original "surge" forces, and it's not clear how long they will remain.
There currently are about 169,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — the highest total of the war. When Bush announced a buildup in January as the centerpiece of a new war strategy, there were 130,000 to 135,000 in Iraq.
In a visit to the Marine base at Quantico, Va., on Friday, Bush said commanders in Iraq would "have the flexibility and the troops needed to achieve the mission," and he urged Congress to heed the advice of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, not to withdraw too speedily.
"I also expect the Congress to support our men and women in uniform and their families," Bush said.
He spoke shortly after the White House sent to Congress a report indicating Iraqi political leaders have gained little new ground on key goals such as passing legislation meant to promote a national reconciliation.
Next week the Senate is expected to resume debate on anti-war legislation. Democratic leaders are expected to call for a vote on about a half dozen amendments, including one by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would require troops to spend as much time at home as they do on combat tours in Iraq.
It's not yet clear how large the U.S. force will be by next summer, and the ambiguity is feeding a sense among anti-war critics that progress Bush claims U.S. forces have made in recent months is too fragile to put the administration on a path to winding down the war before the president leaves office in January 2009.
"It's clear that President Bush intends to drag this process out month after month, year after year, so that he can hand his Iraqi policy off to the next president," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "We have to change our policy now."
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called administration officials "phonies" for suggesting the modest troop withdrawal is the result of gains made in Iraq, rather than the reality that the military is stretched too thin.
Biden, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, added, "There is no plan 'to win.' No plan how to leave. No plan how to end this. It's just a plan to keep ... all the venom from spilling out over the region, and we're using somewhere between 160,000 to 130,000 troops to do that."
Who might come home?
When Petraeus delivered his much-anticipated Iraq report to Congress on Monday, he said he had recommended to Bush that they send home the Army and Marine forces that were part of the buildup Bush announced in January.
Petraeus did not mention a troop reduction total, but the impression gained by many in Congress was that it was equivalent to the approximately 30,000 in the buildup.
Number withdrawn less than 30,000
In an Associated Press interview Thursday, Petraeus suggested the number would be less than 30,000 but he would not provide a specific figure. He said his staff was working out redeployment details.
It appears the reduction will be closer to 25,000, possibly less. Forecasts of future troop levels in Iraq are hazardous, as history has shown, because of the unpredictable nature of the conflict. Large reductions were planned for the latter half of 2006, but a flareup in violence killed that proposal.
In the interview, Petraeus mentioned one concrete example of a support element that likely will be kept after the "surge" combat forces leave. He cited some 2,000 military police sent last spring to help manage the extra detainees captured in stepped-up U.S. offensives in Baghdad and elsewhere. Some of those, he said, probably would remain after the extra combat units are withdrawn because detainee control will remain a challenge.
He gave other, largely overlooked examples during his congressional testimony. In an exchange Monday with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., he said other forces were brought to Iraq this year for a variety of tasks.
They include an unspecified number of personnel associated with work on countering the insurgents' weapon of choice, the roadside bomb, Petraeus said. He also mentioned, without elaboration, that additional "intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets" were added to the force. He did not say how many would be brought home as the "surge" winds down; he described them as resources and people that "we would have wanted regardless of whether we were surging or not."
White House report
Meanwhile, the White House told Congress Friday that Iraqi leaders gained little new ground on key military and political goals.
The report underscored the difficulty of Bush’s argument that continued American sacrifice was creating space for Iraqi leaders to make gains on tamping down the sectarian fighting that leaves Iraq persistently fractured and violent. Bush reinforced that theme from Thursday night’s Oval Office address.
The first assessment, in July, showed the Iraqi government was making satisfactory progress toward meeting eight of 18 goals and unsatisfactory progress on eight others. Two others couldn’t be rated for performance.
Friday’s follow-up report to Congress concluded Iraqis have done enough to move only one benchmark — allowing former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to hold government positions — from the unsatisfactory to satisfactory column.
But White House press secretary Tony Snow said in a statement accompanying the report that there have been other, equally important developments, including passage of a budget, the sharing of oil revenues among the provinces even without legislation and local reconciliation efforts that could trickle up to Baghdad.
“These are precisely the ’effects’ the benchmarks were intended to produce, even if the formal benchmarks themselves have not been met,” Snow said.