Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday that a decision on Iraq troop levels is likely by September, and that he is likely to recommend a further reduction after a 45-day pause in withdrawals that begins in mid-July.
The fall assessment of the politically unpopular war would put the Iraq debate front-and-center in this year's presidential elections, and possibly influence Iraqi provincial elections expected this November.
"My sense is that I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for some further reductions," Petraeus told a Senate panel considering his nomination to lead Central Command, responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East. "I don't want to imply that that means" a particular brigade or major combat formation, he said.
"But I do believe there will be certain assets that, as we are already looking at the picture right now, we'll be able to recommend can be either redeployed or not deployed to the theater in the fall," Petraeus said.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, responded: "That's good news to most of us."
Petraeus has been reluctant in the past to suggest when he might recommend whether more troops could come home.
He would not say how many troops might be withdrawn. The United States has 155,000 troops in Iraq and will have about 140,000 there after current withdrawals are completed in July.
Less optimism about Iraqis' ability
On a less-optimistic note, Petraeus said it is unlikely that Iraqi security forces will take the lead in all provinces this year, as was recently predicted by the Defense Department. Petraeus said events in the past month-and-a-half — alluding to a spike in violence in Basra — have pushed that goal to 2009.
Petraeus also said that provincial elections are likely to be delayed by one month this fall, taking place in November instead of October.
Petraeus has spent nearly four years in Iraq, most recently as commander of U.S. troops there. He would replace Navy Adm. William Fallon as the senior commander of troops in the Middle East, which includes Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who served as Petraeus' deputy for 15 months, is slated to replace Petraeus as the senior military officer in Iraq.
Levin, D-Mich., a staunch war opponent, indicated he supports the promotion of the two generals. Their confirmation would enable unprecedented continuity of leadership in Iraq by officers whose knowledge of the war effort is unparalleled, he said.
"Regardless of one's view of the wisdom of the policy that took us to Iraq in the first place and has kept us there over five years, we owe Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno a debt of gratitude for the commitment, determination and strength that they brought to their areas of responsibility," Levin said.
"And regardless how long the administration may choose to remain engaged in the strife in that country, our troops are better off with the leadership these two distinguished soldiers provide," he added.
Petraeus said that, if confirmed, one of his first trips would be to Pakistan, where terrorists are operating along the Afghan border.
"I think that the key need is to assess whether the overall concept that is guiding (operations) on the Pakistani side in particular, or course, is adequate or not," he said.
Cites Syria, Iran concerns
Petraeus also said in his testimony on Thursday that the existence of secret nuclear facilities in Syria is troubling.
The U.S. must convince Syria that sparking a nuclear arms race in the region, harboring terrorists and trying to undermine stability in Lebanon are not in its own interest, he said. He added that he hopes the peace talks between Syria and Israel mark a positive step.
Syria denies it has the suspected nuclear facilities.
On Iran, Petraeus said the United States should increase diplomatic and economic pressure to counter its rising influence, while retaining possible military action as a "last resort."
Current international pressure on Iran already appears to be "affecting the Iranian energy market and may convince Tehran to focus on longer-term, less malign interests," he added.
"We should make every effort to engage by use of the whole of government, developing further leverage rather than simply targeting discrete threats," Petraeus said in written answers to advance questions from the committee.
"At the same time, we should retain, as a last resort, the possibility of a range of military actions to counter Iran's activities," he said.
The Bush administration has long said it retains a military option on the table as it presses Iran on its nuclear program. Tehran says its nuclear program is for producing energy, but Western powers say Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.
Washington also accuses Tehran of supplying Iraqi Shiite militants with weapons and training for attacks on U.S. forces.
"Our efforts in regard to Iran must involve generating international cooperation and building regional consensus to counter malign Iranian influence and destabilizing activities, while also striving to promote more constructive engagement, if that is possible," Petraeus said.
Central Command, known as Centcom, is responsible for U.S. military interests involving 27 countries including Iran, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Lebanon.