Recommendations for Iraq Petraeus, Seeing Gains in Iraq as Fragile, Is Wary of Cuts
Next week, Gen. Patraeus will tell the US Congress what he thinks should be done in Iraq. There are hints that he will ask to keep most soldiers there. Some are wondering if doing so would be overly cautious or a sober acceptance of the fragility of recent gains.
General David Petraeus, commander of multi-national forces in Iraq, will testify before Congress next week about progress in and recommendations for Iraq.
General Petraeuss view is considered overly cautious by some other senior military officials and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, officials said. But they said it reflected his concern that the security gains made so far in Baghdad, Anbar Province and other areas were fragile and easily reversed.
Beyond the gesture of pulling back one brigade, officials who have been involved in the preparation of General Petraeuss Congressional testimony to be delivered next week say he will discuss the possibility of far deeper withdrawals beyond January that, over a number of months, could bring American force levels down to about 130,000 troops, where they stood at the beginning of 2007. But they said it was unclear how specific the general would be in publicly discussing the timing of pullbacks, and they said that even in internal administration deliberations he had described conditions that must be met before a reduction.
White House officials said Thursday night that Mr. Bush had yet to make any final decisions about the recommendations. But General Petraeuss apparent agreement to a small withdrawal beginning early next year could fit into a narrow consensus that is beginning to emerge on Capitol Hill. Many Republicans and Democrats agree that some troop withdrawal should begin soon, though major disagreements remain about how quick and deep the subsequent withdrawals should be.
General Petraeus is worried about risk, and all things being equal hed like to keep as much as he could for as long as he could, a senior military officer said. General Petraeus returned unannounced to Washington late on Tuesday, officials said, to prepare for the testimony he will deliver beginning Monday. It will be paired with a political assessment of the Maliki government delivered by Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq. Several officials involved in internal discussions about the testimony said that both General Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the ground commander in Iraq, were worried about signing on to a timetable that would commit them to steep withdrawals in the spring. In recent weeks, the ground commanders have said they need the option to halt any pullback if security conditions deteriorate.
With more than 160,000 American troops now in Iraq, the withdrawal in January of one brigade, roughly 3,500 to 4,500 troops, would not amount to a large drain on General Petraeuss forces. Mr. Bush has indicated to aides that he will be likely to embrace the outlines of General Petraeuss recommendations, after declaring publicly that he will rely for advice on his ground commanders, rather than bowing to political pressure from those in Congress who are pushing for a speedier withdrawal.
Still, some members of the Joint Chiefs, including the outgoing chairman, Gen. Peter Pace, and senior officers at Central Command, which has overall responsibility for the Middle East, are said to be pushing for a faster drawdown of the 30,000 additional American troops sent to Iraq. Several officers involved said Adm. William J. Fallon, the head of Central Command, had joined in that effort because he was worried about having enough forces in reserve to handle contingencies elsewhere, presumably including any future confrontation with Iran.
Admiral Fallon is also said to believe that giving the Iraqi government a clearer sense that the American troop commitment is limited will help prompt the Iraqis to take steps aimed at achieving reconciliation among Iraqs warring sectarian factions.
The slow progress of the Iraqi forces dominated debate on Capitol Hill on Thursday as Gen. James L. Jones, the retired supreme American commander in Europe, reported to Congress that it would be 12 to 18 months before the Iraqi forces were capable of operations independent of American assistance. But General Jones also said he could envision a pullback of the American forces starting early next year.
An embrace by the White House of a plan to take a combat brigade off the front lines could help to ease pressure from Republican lawmakers, including Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, who have called for a visible gesture to show that the White House is changing course.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has told colleagues privately that he would like to see a withdrawal of some troops as a Christmas gesture to the troops this year and an effort to lower the heat of the political debate in the United States.
Such a gesture could also open the way to forging some common ground with Democrats. In recent days, some Senate Democratic leaders have indicated a willingness to drop their insistence on a strict timetable for withdrawal. Instead, the Democratic senators are now discussing legislation that might set nonbinding goals for the completion of a drawdown that would shift most remaining American forces into support roles.
Still, the White House is nowhere close to committing to the deep reductions being discussed by Democrats and some Republicans, which would extend beyond the additional five combat brigades that Mr. Bush sent to Iraq. Some have endorsed a recommendation by the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan advisory panel, which called in late 2006 for a pullback of all combat brigades by the end of March 2008.
There are now some 20 American combat brigades in Iraq. Administration officials have signaled that even the most aggressive drawdown being contemplated by the White House would leave at least 10 combat brigades in Iraq by the end of 2008, down from the 15 in place before the troop increase began.
Concern about the strain on the force is said to be driving General Pace and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, who are said to favor that aggressive administration plan.
Another key voice in the debate could be Mr. Gates, who told reporters during a visit to Iraq with Mr. Bush earlier this week that he had formulated an opinion about troop adjustments. Mr. Gates declined to reveal it publicly, but Mr. Gates has long hoped to use the September review to forge a consensus of members of Congress on how to proceed in Iraq, a goal that may require accepting deeper troop reductions sooner than General Petraeus wants.
A spokesman for General Petraeus, Lt. Col. Joseph Yoswa, declined to comment on the coming testimony.