The Bush administration is sending strong signals that U.S. troop reductions in Iraq will slow or stop altogether this summer, a move that would jeopardize hopes of relieving strain on the Army and Marine Corps and revive debate over an open-ended U.S. commitment in Iraq.
The indications of a likely slowdown reflect concern by U.S. commanders that the improvement in security in Iraq since June — to a degree few had predicted when President Bush ordered five more Army brigades to Iraq a year ago — is tenuous and could be reversed if the extra troops come out too soon.
One of those extra brigades left in December, and the other four are due to come out by July, leaving 15 brigades, or roughly 130,000 to 135,000 troops — the same number as before Bush sent the reinforcements.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to report to the president and to Congress in April on possible additional cutbacks and any recommended changes in strategy. Petraeus recently said it would be prudent to "let things settle a bit" after the current round of troop cuts is completed in July before deciding whether and when to reduce further.
Majority Democrats in Congress have pressed unsuccessfully to wind down the war quickly, in part out of concern that more firepower should be transferred to Afghanistan, where the security situation has deteriorated. Reluctance by Bush to continue the troop drawdown beyond July is likely to trigger a new round of conflict with the antiwar Democrats, especially with the November elections looming.
Petraeus seems at this point to be inclined to declare a pause in troop reductions after July, although no decisions have been made and there are competing pressures from within the Pentagon. The Army in particular wants additional reductions to enable it to shorten Iraq tours from 15 months to 12 months. The longer tours are among pressures that Army leaders fear could break the force.
Petraeus speaks regularly with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other administration officials to keep them informed of his thinking, although he has not yet made a recommendation to Bush. A senior administration official said Petraeus has made clear he is "concerned about a rush to 10" — a reference to the 10-brigade force level that some administration officials see as an attractive target to hit by the time Bush leaves the White House a year from now.
Bush: It's up to Petraeus
The administration official said "it really is not determined" yet whether conditions in Iraq will permit further cutbacks. The official briefed reporters last week at the White House on condition of anonymity.
With months to go before a decision has to be made about troop reductions in the second half of the year, it is possible that circumstances in Iraq will change, for better or for worse, in ways that cannot be foreseen. Thus Petraeus is likely to want as much time as possible before committing himself.
The first sign Bush might endorse a pause in troop reductions came earlier this month when he recounted for reporters his meeting with Petraeus in Kuwait on Jan. 12.
"My attitude is, if he (Petraeus) didn't want to continue the drawdown, that's fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed," Bush said. "I said to the general, if you want to slow her down, fine; it's up to you."
In his State of the Union address Monday, Bush emphasized the risks — with no mention of the benefits — of continuing the cutbacks beyond July.
"Any further drawdown of U.S. troops will be based on conditions in Iraq and the recommendations of our commanders," Bush said. "General Petraeus has warned that too fast a drawdown could result in the ‘disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, al-Qaida-Iraq regaining lost ground, (and) a marked increase in violence.'"
He added: "Having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow this to happen."
In referring to Petraeus' concern about the risk of a "disintegration" of Iraq's security forces, Bush appeared to be quoting from the general's testimony to Congress in September. In those remarks Petraeus cited a Defense Intelligence Agency report on what might happen if there were a rapid withdrawal of American combat forces, not specifically a cut from 15 brigades to 10 brigades.
Gates has stated publicly several times in recent weeks that he hopes conditions in Iraq will permit the withdrawal of an additional five brigades by the end of the year. That would leave a total of 10 brigades in combat, numbering about 100,000 troops. That compares with today's total of 157,000.
In brief remarks to The Associated Press during a visit to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Gates gave no indication that he has changed his view.
"I've said I would hope that we would continue the pace of withdrawals and that conditions on the ground would permit the withdrawals to continue in the second half of the year. That's where I still am," he said.
Although Bush regularly cites Petraeus as the adviser on whom he relies for decisions on Iraq, the general is not the only senior official who will have a say in whether to continue with troop reductions.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday that Gates will offer his views, as will Adm. William J. Fallon, the Central Command chief, who is doing his own assessment of Iraq in light of U.S. military requirements elsewhere in the Middle East and in Afghanistan. In addition, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is heading another review with the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.
Assessments, talks and time
The president met Tuesday in the Cabinet Room with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders, including Fallon, and later was having dinner with the military leaders and their spouses. Bush said he was going to talk with them about the war on terror and their common desire to protect America.
Petraeus himself is publicly cautious about troop levels in Iraq.
In remarks on CNN on Sunday, Petraeus said he is still analyzing conditions in Iraq and may want to wait until after this current series of troop reductions is completed in July before setting a new course.
"We will, though, need to have some time to let things settle a bit, if you will, after we complete the withdrawal" in July of the five brigades, he said, noting that losing five brigades reduces his total combat power by one-quarter.
"We think (it) would be prudent to do some period of assessment, then to make decisions," he added.