The Bush administration plans to announce next week that U.S. soldiers' combat tours will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning later this summer.
The decision, which still requires final, formal approval, comes as Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, prepares to deliver a progress report to Congress next week on the improved security situation there. He is also expected to make recommendations for future troop levels.
A senior administration official said Friday that plans are to deploy soldiers for 12 months, then give them 12 months rest time at home. Exactly which units would be affected is not yet clear. The official spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.
The move to shorter deployments has been pushed by Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, as a way to reduce the strain on troops battered by long and repeated tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that goal has been hindered by the ongoing security demands in Iraq.
Officials have been publicly tightlipped in recent days about the move to reduce the tours. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday he expected a decision by President Bush "fairly soon" on the Army's proposal. But he also cautioned that cutting troops' time on the battlefront will impose limits on what the military can do in the future.
"So I think the bottom line is, we're all still looking at that. But I think we'll have a better idea of what we think we can do, what we ought to do, in the fairly near future," Gates told reporters Friday.
What the future holds for troops in Iraq will become clearer when Petraeus goes before congressional committees Tuesday.
Petraus' plan for summer
Petraeus is expected to lay out his proposal for a pause in troop cuts after July when the last of the five additional brigades ordered to Iraq last year have come home. And he will likely tell lawmakers how many more troops could be withdrawn this year, as long as conditions in Iraq remained stable.
His presentation will include statistics reflecting a reduction in violence over the past seven months, but it will also note the latest spike in fighting in Basra, as Iraqi security forces took on Shiite militias, and the attacks that stretched out into Baghdad.
Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, are expected to tout political advancements by the Iraqis, although they will note that much more needs to be done.
Officials said Friday that the Army proposal to reduce tours is on track. Top military leaders made it clear to Bush in a closed-door meeting late last month that they are worried about the war's growing strain on troops and their families.
Gates made the decision to extend deployments to 15 months last year, because that was the only way the Army could provide enough troops for the Bush-ordered military buildup aimed at quelling the violence in Baghdad.
Ever since, Gates, Casey and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said they want to go back to 12 months tours as soon as possible.
There are now 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 18 combat brigades — down from a peak of 20 brigades for much of the past year. By the end of July, military leaders have said those numbers would fall to 140,000 troops, including 15 combat brigades.
Casey has said he could reduce combat tours if the demands on the Army were cut back to a total of 15 brigades in the war zone. At the end of July there would be 13 in Iraq — along with two Marine units — and two Army brigades in Afghanistan.
Democrats urge change in course
In a related move Friday, Democrats signaled that they don't see much hope in ending the Iraq war this year so long as Bush insists U.S. troops remain committed there in large numbers.
Still, party leaders wrote to Bush on Friday to tell him it's not too late to change course and plead with him not to leave the war for the next president to handle.
"We are deeply concerned that you and the congressional Republican leadership are intent on staying the current course throughout your administration and then handing the Iraq war off to future presidents," the Democrats wrote.
Others said they hope to see continued efforts to force troop withdrawals, but they acknowledged they were unlikely to succeed.
"I expect most of our troops to still be there" come the end of the year, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
"Until there's either a big enough majority in the Senate or a change in the president's (approach), I don't see a significant improvement situation improvement in Iraq," Levin said in a conference call with reporters.
Sen. Joe Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, predicted in the same conference call that the situation in Iraq will grow considerably worse by September "because the administration seems to have no political game plan."
Since Democrats lack a veto-proof majority, they have repeatedly failed to force Bush to accept any anti-war legislation, including one measure supported by many Republicans that would have required that troops spend more time at home between combat tours.