Military Envisions Longer Stay in Iraq

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

BAGHDAD -- U.S. military officials here are increasingly envisioning a "post-occupation" troop presence in Iraq that neither maintains current levels nor leads to a complete pullout, but aims for a smaller, longer-term force that would remain in the country for years.

This goal, drawn from recent interviews with more than 20 U.S. military officers and other officials here, including senior commanders, strategists and analysts, remains in the early planning stages. It is based on officials' assessment that a sharp drawdown of troops is likely to begin by the middle of next year, with roughly two-thirds of the current force of 150,000 moving out by late 2008 or early 2009. The questions officials are grappling with are not whether the U.S. presence will be cut, but how quickly, to what level and to what purpose.

One of the guiding principles, according to two officials here, is that the United States should leave Iraq more intelligently than it entered. Military officials, many of whom would be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity, say they are now assessing conditions more realistically, rejecting the "steady progress" mantra of their predecessors and recognizing that short-term political reconciliation in Iraq is unlikely. A reduction of troops, some officials argue, would demonstrate to anti-American factions that the occupation will not last forever while reassuring Iraqi allies that the United States does not intend to abandon the country.

The planning is shaped in part by logistical realities in Iraq. The immediate all-or-nothing debate in Washington over troop levels represents a false dilemma, some military officials said. Even if a total pullout is the goal, it could take a year to execute a full withdrawal. One official estimated that with only one major route from the country -- through southern Iraq to Kuwait -- it would take at least 3,000 large convoys some 10 months to remove U.S. military gear and personnel alone, not including the several thousand combat vehicles that would be needed to protect such an operation.

"We're not going to go from where we're at now to zero overnight," said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. commander for day-to-day operations in Iraq.

U.S. officials also calculate that underneath the anti-American rhetoric, even Shiite radicals such as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr don't really want to see a total U.S. pullout, especially while they feel threatened by Sunni insurgents. Also, officials think any Iraqi government will prefer to keep a small U.S. combat force to deter foreign intervention.

Such a long-term presence would have four major components. The centerpiece would be a reinforced mechanized infantry division of around 20,000 soldiers assigned to guarantee the security of the Iraqi government and to assist Iraqi forces or their U.S. advisers if they get into fights they can't handle.

Second, a training and advisory force of close to 10,000 troops would work with Iraqi military and police units. "I think it would be very helpful to have a force here for a period of time to continue to help the Iraqis train and continue to build their capabilities," Odierno said.

In addition, officials envision a small but significant Special Operations unit focused on fighting the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq. "I think you'll retain a very robust counterterror capability in this country for a long, long time," a Pentagon official in Iraq said.

Finally, the headquarters and logistical elements to command and supply such a force would total more than 10,000 troops, plus some civilian contractors.

The thinking behind this "post-occupation" force, as one official called it, echoes the core conclusion of a Joint Chiefs of Staff planning group that last fall secretly considered three possible courses in Iraq, which it categorized as "go big," "go home" and "go long." The group's recommendation to reshape the U.S. presence in order to "go long" -- to remain in Iraq for years with a smaller force -- appears to carry weight in Baghdad, where some of the colonels who led that planning group have been working for Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq since February.

Despite the significant differences in the way the war has been discussed in Washington and in Baghdad, this plan is emerging as a point of convergence between the two capitals. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and White House spokesman Tony Snow both recently made comments indicating that the administration is thinking along the same lines as military officials here. Snow has likened the possible long-term mission of U.S. troops in Iraq to the protective role American forces have played in South Korea since the end of the Korean War 54 years ago. And Gates said recently that is he considering a "protracted" U.S. presence in Iraq rather than a complete withdrawal.


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