By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2008
Gen. David H. Petraeus has decided to reduce the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq from 15 to 14 about six weeks earlier than planned, as a result of dramatically lower violence there, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
"The hope is they can come home before Christmas," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said of the decision.
The plan accelerates the withdrawal from Iraq of a 101st Airborne Division brigade of 3,500 to 4,000 troops that will not be replaced. Another brigade from the 10th Mountain Division that was scheduled to go to Iraq in its place will instead deploy to Afghanistan, as announced earlier this fall.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has stated that further increases in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan -- where American commanders say they need three more brigades and thousands of support forces to combat a growing insurgency -- will be contingent upon further withdrawals from Iraq next year.
Underpinning the decision to speed the brigade's return is a continuing drop in attacks and troop casualties in Iraq, officials said. October had fewer than 1,000 "security incidents" nationwide in Iraq, the lowest monthly number since January 2004, Morrell said.
U.S. troop casualties are also falling. Twelve American service members died last month, including six from noncombat causes. That is the lowest number since July, when nine U.S. troops died.
The departing brigade has served in Baghdad, where attack levels have plunged. Its troops will serve only a 13-month tour, instead of the 15 months expected when they deployed, before returning to their home base at Fort Campbell, Ky.
"The security situation is such that Petraeus has made a decision to bring them home about six weeks early," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. Petraeus, who oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia as head of Central Command, informed the Pentagon of his determination in recent days. Gen. Ray Odierno, who replaced Petraeus in October as the top U.S. commander in Iraq, recommended the faster withdrawal, officials said.
Petraeus and Odierno oversaw the "surge" of five combat brigades into Iraq last year, bringing the total to 20. That number was lowered to 15 as of July, after major improvements in security. Petraeus then called for a pause in withdrawals to assess the impact of lower troop levels.
In September, Petraeus recommended that those reductions continue, calling for an additional 8,000 combat and support troops to leave Iraq by January, and President Bush approved that plan.
Still, Petraeus has emphasized in recent speeches that the situation in Iraq remains "fragile." He has also stated that while the troop increase was critical to lowering sectarian killings and other violence, equally important was the adoption of new counterinsurgency strategies that included negotiations with "reconcilable" insurgent groups and basing troops in small outposts where they could better protect local populations. The U.S. military in Iraq has hired about 100,000 local fighters, many of them Sunni tribesmen and former insurgents.
Similarly, the U.S. military seeks to work with the Afghan government to encourage Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.