By Ernesto Londoño and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 14, 2010; A01
BAGHDAD -- The U.S. military is on track to draw down to 50,000 troops in Iraq by the end of the summer, but it now faces the long-dreaded prospect that its exit could coincide with a power vacuum similar to the one that drove the country to civil war in 2006.
Approaching what it calls the end of its combat mission in Iraq, the U.S. military will maintain substantial firepower here for the near future. But it will have to adjust to waning resources, influence, mobility and money like never before. And it will be drawing down amid a political standoff in the wake of the March 7 parliamentary elections that has no end in sight.
American commanders are watching the sluggish government formation process closely and warily. The risks are high, with U.S. and Iraqi military commanders expressing fears ranging from a possible resurgence of Shiite militias to the splintering of security forces along sectarian lines.
But the Obama administration has so far stuck to its timeline that calls for a drawdown to 50,000 troops -- roughly half the current total -- by Sept. 1, and the complete pullout of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. It has also disappointed some Iraqis who would like to see Washington play a more assertive role in brokering the political impasse.
"What it does is says, 'We're focused on the door, you're focused on political survival," said Meghan O'Sullivan, a deputy national security adviser for Iraq during the George W. Bush administration. "This increases the possibility that the political stalemate turns into something with long-term negative repercussions."
The U.S. Special Operations footprint will remain largely unchanged after Sept. 1, U.S. officials say, with roughly 4,500 elite troops tasked with targeting terrorist networks in partnership with Iraqi special forces. Their top priorities will include battling weakened Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite militias that continue to launch attacks against U.S. troops.
The seven combat brigades that will remain after the summer, temporarily rebranded as "advice and assist brigades," have been reinforced with senior officers who have expertise in training. The military will keep one brigade in Baghdad and one in Anbar province, west of the capital. The remaining five -- each with 3,000 to 5,000 troops -- will be split between northern and southern divisions. Also remaining will be headquarters and certain support personnel. U.S. forces will have a negligible presence in most urban areas, and will be spread thin in southern provinces, where security has improved considerably in recent months.
At the height of the 2007 troop surge, the U.S. military had 20 combat brigades in Iraq -- roughly 170,000 troops -- with the densest concentration in Baghdad and Anbar. It has gradually drawn down to roughly 94,000. The departure of tens of thousands of troops in the coming months -- with most leaving toward the end of summer -- will mark the military's sharpest pullout at any stage of the war, which began with a March 2003 invasion.
American commanders said they would contemplate asking the White House for a delay of the Sept. 1 deadline only if the political process were to collapse completely, a scenario they see as unlikely. But they say they worry that further delay in efforts to create a governing coalition could paralyze basic Iraqi institutions they have spent years trying to jump-start, including the military, police force and justice system.
The March 7 elections produced no clear winner and have led to extensive jockeying among various parties to create a workable government. Among the parties in contention for a place in the new coalition is the movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite political faction with close ties to Iran and a large militia. U.S. officials are concerned that it could end up controlling one of the ministries that oversees the army or police.
The Sadrists recently reached a tentative deal to band together with a faction affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form the next government, though sticking points remain.
Although Shiite militias have kept a low profile in recent months, Iraqi and U.S. officials say that could change if political fights escalate, especially if some factions feel left out of the new government. The threat posed by Sunni insurgents has been somewhat reduced in recent months, after the arrests and slayings of dozens of suspected leaders, including the deaths of the top two commanders of al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the groups retain the capacity to carry out significant attacks, as they did Monday with strikes that killed dozens across the country.
U.S. officials said they hope to keep about 50,000 troops in Iraq until at least next spring and perhaps longer, saying they could conceivably compress the rest of the drawdown to the final four or five months of 2011. When troop levels drop to 50,000, the civilian contractor-to-soldier ratio is expected to increase as contractors take on more duties now performed by troops. The military expects it will have 75,000 contractors employed in Iraq by the end of the summer doing everything from base security to advanced weapons training.
U.S. military officials say they expect to retain a thinning but significant presence along the Iranian and Syrian borders, long a gateway for weapons and fighters. Small border outposts along the Iranian border have allowed the military in recent years to collect valuable intelligence on what it calls malign Iranian influence.
U.S. officials say they also plan to keep a significant force along disputed territories in northern Iraq, where forces loyal to the regional Kurdish government and units of the conventional Iraqi army have come close to armed conflict in recent years.
Maj. Gen. Turhan Yusuf Rahman, the police commander in Kirkuk, the center of the 300-mile stretch of disputed territories, called the U.S. drawdown dangerous. "We need them now and in the foreseeable future," he said. "Their departure would be a catastrophe and a serious threat to the democratic experiment."
U.S. military officials say Iraqi forces have generally exceeded expectations since most U.S. troops were withdrawn from the cities last summer. "We've been able to watch the Iraqi security forces manage these things and do it well," said Brig. Gen. Ralph Baker, a top commander in Baghdad.
Nonetheless, some Iraqi commanders speak ominously about the government transition period, warning that it could test the cohesiveness and loyalty of Iraq's vast security apparatus.
"All of them belong to Iran," one senior Iraqi commander in Baghdad said on the condition of anonymity to be able to speak critically of Shiites expected to dominate the next government. "We're not yet an army. This is just AK-47s and Humvees."
Whitlock reported from Washington. Special correspondent Uthman al-Mokhtar in Fallujah and a special correspondent in Kirkuk contributed to this report.