3 Brigades May Be Cut in Iraq Early in 2006

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By Bradley Graham and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Barring any major surprises in Iraq, the Pentagon tentatively plans to reduce the number of U.S. forces there early next year by as many as three combat brigades, from 18 now, but to keep at least one brigade "on call" in Kuwait in case more troops are needed quickly, several senior military officers said.

Pentagon authorities also have set a series of "decision points" during 2006 to consider further force cuts that, under a "moderately optimistic" scenario, would drop the total number of troops from more than 150,000 now to fewer than 100,000, including 10 combat brigades, by the end of the year, the officers said.

Despite an intensified congressional debate about a withdrawal timetable after last week's call by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) for a quick pullout, administration officials say that military and political factors heavily constrain how fast U.S. forces should leave. They cite a continuing need to assist Iraq's fledgling security forces, ensure establishment of a permanent government, suppress the insurgency and reduce the potential for civil war.

U.S. military commanders, too, continue to favor a gradual, phased reduction, saying that too rapid a departure would sacrifice strategic gains made over the past 30 months and provide a propaganda windfall to insurgents.

Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the senior tactical commander in Iraq, indicated to reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that his staff had looked at shrinking U.S. force levels more quickly. But he made his opposition to such a move clear.

"A precipitous pullout, I believe, would be destabilizing," Vines said from Baghdad.

Another senior general likened an accelerated withdrawal to "taking the training wheels off of a bike too early," warning that a sudden removal of all U.S. troops would risk the collapse of Iraq's fledgling security forces. He and several other officers privy to the planning for force reductions said the process has not been affected by the mounting political pressure in the United States and among some Iraqi leaders for U.S. troops to leave.

The current number of U.S. forces in Iraq represents an increase of more than 15,000 troops over a base level this year of about 138,000, including 17 combat brigades. The equivalent of another brigade's worth of combat power was added this fall to bolster security for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and the coming Dec. 15 vote on a new national government.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld spoke over the weekend of plans to bring the force level back down to 138,000 after the elections, effectively removing the extra brigade equivalent added for the election period.

In addition, officers said, two combat brigades that had been slated to move into Iraq to replace units coming out are now expected to be held back. One of those units -- a brigade of the 1st Armored Division based in Germany -- will probably be positioned in Kuwait. The other unit -- a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division -- will probably remain at its home base of Fort Riley, Kan., the officers said.

The plan to keep at least one brigade in Kuwait represents what one senior officer called a "hybrid option." It is intended to hedge against events in Iraq deteriorating once U.S. force levels begin to drop, the officer said, adding that the Pentagon probably will place troops on alert elsewhere as well.

"These would be middle measures that would allow for a mitigation of the risks of reducing forces in Iraq and make the decisions more palatable," the officer said.


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