By Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 5, 2008
Pentagon leaders have recommended to President Bush that the United States make no further troop reductions in Iraq this year, administration officials said yesterday.
The plan, delivered this week, calls for extending a pause in drawdowns until late January or early February -- after the Bush administration has left office. At that point, up to 7,500 of the approximately 146,000 troops in Iraq could be withdrawn, depending on conditions on the ground there. The reduction would coincide with new deployments to Afghanistan, officials said.
Defense officials described the recommendation as a compromise between those who believed that security gains in Iraq remained too tenuous to contemplate further withdrawals now, and those who proposed continuing the reductions that began this spring.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, adopted a cautious approach in an assessment he presented last week to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Petraeus cited several areas of ongoing concern, including the postponement of provincial elections initially scheduled for this month, the disputed status of the northern city of Kirkuk, lingering ethno-sectarian conflicts, and questions surrounding the future of a local security force known as the Sons of Iraq.
There was also the factor of "a new commander coming in," one official said. On Sept. 16, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno will replace Petraeus, who will become head of U.S. Central Command.
According to another military official close to the process, Petraeus and Odierno also considered the rising violence in Afghanistan as well as the overall strain on the U.S. military from the two conflicts. Under the proposal Gates and Mullen gave Bush in a video briefing Wednesday, at least one additional Army combat brigade -- about 3,500 troops -- would be sent to Afghanistan instead of its scheduled deployment to replace a brigade leaving Iraq. An additional 4,000 would be withdrawn from disparate units. In Afghanistan, a Marine battalion due to depart by the end of the year would be replaced.
Petraeus's assessment was subjected, said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, to "lengthy discussions" that included the service chiefs and Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, acting head of Central Command. "There was a collaborative process and they came to agreement . . . about the dramatic security gains in Iraq, the threats that still exist there and the uncertainties that remain," Morrell said.
Morrell and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to provide details of the recommendations. "The president is now considering his options," Perino said. In the past, Bush has frequently said he would follow Petraeus's advice.
Officials with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign declined last night to comment on the Pentagon proposal, while Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign did not respond to requests for comment. McCain has refused to set a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, saying that any drawdown should be "conditions-based." He has also advocated increasing the U.S. force in Afghanistan. Obama has said he will remove combat brigades the rate of one a month and has also called for sending two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. Bush ordered five additional U.S. brigades into Iraq over the first half of 2007, a policy that became known as the surge. The Pentagon began withdrawing forces later in the year, but Bush paused that drawdown in April, on Petraeus's advice, with troop levels still higher than they had been at the beginning of the surge.
There had been widespread expectation that Petraeus would propose withdrawing at least an additional Army brigade from Iraq before the end of the year. The last of the five brigades Bush ordered deployed last year, as part of a "surge" in U.S. troops, was withdrawn in July, leaving 15 brigades in place.
Some U.S. commanders, including most recently the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James T. Conway, have stressed that vastly reduced levels of attacks in the Iraqi province of Anbar, where 25,000 Marines are stationed, allow for more withdrawals. Responsibility for security in Anbar was turned over to Iraqis on Monday.
Commanders in Afghanistan have said as many as 10,000 additional U.S. troops are needed to quell an intensifying insurgency and train security forces. Current U.S. deployments to Afghanistan include 14,000 troops that are part of a NATO force and an additional 19,000 under separate U.S. command.
Under a bilateral security agreement being negotiated with the Iraqi government, U.S. combat troops would cease regular patrols in Iraqi cities and withdraw to bases by mid-2009, with a complete combat withdrawal from the country by some point during 2011.
But commanders consider the next several months to be crucial in consolidating security gains made over the past year. There is concern that violence may spike during provincial elections -- originally scheduled for this month but postponed after the failure of the Iraqi parliament to agree on a new electoral law. The legislature must pass the law by the end of this month if elections are to happen this year.
Passage of the law was stymied in part by disagreements among ethnic Kurds and other minorities about the unresolved status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Equally uncertain is what will happen with leaders of the "Special Groups" of Iranian-backed Shiite militias. U.S. officials said many of the leaders, who have vowed to continue combating U.S. forces in Iraq, fled to Iran after a spring Iraqi government crackdown against them in Baghdad and Basra. Their intentions, U.S. officials said, are unknown.
Military officials are also concerned about the 100,000-strong Sons of Iraq, the largely Sunni volunteer security force. Recruited in part from former insurgent groups that turned against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, the volunteers have been paid from U.S. funds. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said it would be responsible for the volunteers' salaries and would find jobs for them, but it has been slow to do so. In recent days, a number of volunteer leaders have been arrested, exacerbating sectarian tensions.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.