By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008
President Bush expects to pull more U.S. troops out of Iraq before he leaves office next January, a senior administration official said yesterday, dismissing suspicions that a pause in withdrawals this summer would freeze U.S. force levels until the next president takes office.
The temporary halt in troop reductions now expected this summer would last just four to six weeks to assess conditions on the ground, the official said, and, assuming the situation does not deteriorate, would be followed by more withdrawals later in the year. The official would not predict how many more troops might be pulled out by the end of Bush's term.
Speaking to reporters at a briefing under ground rules that he not be identified, the official said of the pause: "This is not a stall tactic. I fully expect further reductions this year, in '08, and so does the president. It's just a question of when will the reductions be announced, when will they take effect . . . and what will be the pace."
The administration is now pulling out the 20,000 additional combat troops Bush sent last year, with the last of them due to leave Iraq by mid-July. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has proposed a pause after that to review conditions and see whether the remaining troops can keep violence down. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last month that he agreed, seeming to undercut his previous desire to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq from 158,000 now to 100,000 by the end of 2008.
The idea of a pause has roiled the politics of war in Washington and angered Democrats who want to accelerate the pullout, not slow it down. Both Democratic presidential candidates have denounced the idea, and the Senate this week debated legislation to require troop withdrawals within 120 days and subsequently limit the missions the remaining forces could conduct.
The Senate debated the bill for three days, with Republicans voting twice to continue the discussion because of newfound confidence born out of security gains in Iraq. With fewer than 30 senators publicly backing the measure, however, it was withdrawn by week's end without a final vote, and Senate leadership aides do not expect any new action on Iraq until spring.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who sponsored the proposal, chided the administration for the latest signal regarding forces in Iraq. "Mixed messages from this administration regarding troop levels are nothing new," he said in a statement. "Only a clear timetable for when we will be out of Iraq will help move Iraqi political reconciliation forward and allow us to refocus on al-Qaeda."
Bush made no public comment on Iraq yesterday. He met with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the White House to discuss the war in Afghanistan and then flew to Texas, where he will host Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to further discuss the effort in Afghanistan.
But on Thursday, Bush mocked Democrats for fixating on leaving Iraq. "I guess you could say that when it comes for pushing for withdrawal, their strategy is to stay the course," he said. "It's interesting that many of the same people who once accused me of refusing to acknowledge setbacks in Iraq now are the ones who are refusing to acknowledge progress."
Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker will return to Capitol Hill to testify on April 8 and 9, updating lawmakers from their last appearance in September. Until now, the administration had not sketched out a time frame for the pause in withdrawals. The official who briefed reporters said it would be "a period of weeks, four to six weeks, not months." Petraeus, the official said, is "not thinking about 90 days here to reassess."
Under that scenario, Petraeus would then determine by the end of August if further reductions are feasible. If violence does not spike, he could recommend that more brigades be pulled out, although officials said it would take a couple of months to begin withdrawing more troops once an order is given.
"We anticipate further reductions because we have confidence in the way things are going now," the administration official said.
It remained unclear how large further withdrawals might be. Even if Petraeus advises Bush to pull out more troops, the president might want to wait until after provincial elections that Iraqis are contemplating for October, keeping enough forces to provide security around the time of the vote, officials said.
Bush could order the withdrawal of several brigades over several months, much as the current pullout of the "surge" troops is being phased in through the spring. In doing so, he could set in motion a sequence of withdrawals that would continue even after he leaves office. But some military officers said they expect Bush to decide not to preempt the next president, in which case he might pull out a single additional combat brigade of about 4,000 troops in December.
Spokesmen for Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who advised the White House on the surge, expressed surprise at the notion of a short pause ending by early October. "The idea that you would continue the troop withdrawal in the face of provincial elections makes no sense," he said.
Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks and Paul Kane contributed to this report.