May 26, 2007
White House Said to Debate 08 Cut in Iraq Troops by
By DAVID E. SANGER and DAVID S. CLOUD
WASHINGTON, May 25 The Bush administration is
developing what are described as concepts for reducing
American combat forces in Iraq by as much as half next
year, according to senior administration officials in
the midst of the internal debate.
It is the first indication that growing political
pressure is forcing the White House to turn its
attention to what happens after the current troop
increase runs its course.
The concepts call for a reduction in forces that could
lower troop levels by the midst of the 2008
presidential election to roughly 100,000, from about
146,000, the latest available figure, which the
military reported on May 1. They would also greatly
scale back the mission that President Bush set for the
American military when he ordered it in January to win
back control of Baghdad and Anbar Province.
The mission would instead focus on the training of
Iraqi troops and fighting Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia,
while removing Americans from many of the
counterinsurgency efforts inside Baghdad.
Still, there is no indication that Mr. Bush is
preparing to call an early end to the current troop
increase, and one reason officials are talking about
their long-range strategy may be to blunt pressure
from members of Congress, including some Republicans,
who are pushing for a more rapid troop reduction.
The officials declined to be quoted for attribution
because they were discussing internal deliberations
that they expected to evolve over several months.
Officials say proponents of reducing the troops and
scaling back their mission next year appear to include
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice. They have been joined by
generals at the Pentagon and elsewhere who have long
been skeptical that the Iraqi government would use the
opportunity created by the troop increase to reach
genuine political accommodations.
So far, the concepts are entirely a creation of
Washington and have been developed without the
involvement of the top commanders in Iraq, Gen. David
H. Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, both of
whom have been enthusiastic supporters of the troop
Those generals and other commanders have made it clear
that they are operating on a significantly slower
clock than officials in Washington, who are eager for
significant withdrawals before the president leaves
office in January 2009.
In an interview in Baghdad on Thursday, General
Odierno, the senior United States ground commander,
said any withdrawal of American troops was not
advisable until December, at a minimum.
Even then, he said, redeployments should be carried
out slowly, to avoid jeopardizing security gains.
General Odierno, who has pushed for extending the
troop increase into next year, noted that units were
in place or available to continue that effort through
But the ideas under discussion, from the National
Security Council to the Pentagon, envision reductions
beginning well before then. The last time American
troop levels in Iraq were anywhere near 100,000 was in
January 2004, when they fell briefly to about 108,000.
One of the ideas, officials say, would be to reduce
the current 20 American combat brigades to about 10,
which would be completed between the spring of 2008
and the end of the year.
Several administration officials said they hoped that
if such a reduction were under way in the midst of the
presidential campaign, it would shift the debate from
whether American forces should be pulled out by a
specific deadline the current argument consuming
Washington to what kind of long-term presence the
United States should have in Iraq.
It stems from a recognition that the current level of
forces arent sustainable in Iraq, they arent
sustainable in the region, and they will be
increasingly unsustainable here at home, said one
administration official who has taken part in the
But other officials in Washington cautioned that any
drawdown could be jeopardized by a major outbreak of
new violence. Vice President Dick Cheney and others
might argue that even beginning a withdrawal would
embolden elements of Al Qaeda and the Shiite militias
that have recently appeared to go underground.
Missing from much of the current discussion is talk
about the success of democracy in Iraq, officials say,
or even of the passage of reconciliation measures that
Mr. Bush said in January that the troop increase would
allow to take place. In interviews, many senior
administration and military officials said they now
doubted that those political gains, even if achieved,
would significantly reduce the violence.
The officials cautioned that no firm plans have
emerged from the discussions. But they said the
proposals being developed envision a far smaller but
long-term American presence, centering on three or
four large bases around Iraq. Mr. Bush has told recent
visitors to the White House that he was seeking a
model similar to the American presence in South Korea.
Both Mr. Bush and Secretary Gates appeared to allude
to the new ideas at separate news conferences on
Thursday, though they were careful not to be specific
about how or when what they are terming the post-surge
phase would begin.
Mr. Gates described the administrations goal of
eventually shifting the mission in Iraq to one that is
more to train, equip, continue to go after Al Qaeda
and provide support. Such a mission, he noted,
clearly would involve fewer forces than we have now.
Any change of course is going to be the presidents
decision, Mr. Gates said, but one greatly influenced
by assessments from General Petraeus and the new
American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, who are
to provide an assessment of the situation in
September. Mr. Gates also referred to the possible
need for some kind of residual force in Iraq for some
protracted period of time.
A rapid transfer of responsibility to Iraqi forces and
withdrawal to large bases was attempted in 2005 and
2006, with disastrous results when the Iraqi units
proved incapable of halting major attacks, and
sectarian violence worsened.
Weve been here before, General Odierno said in the
interview, referring to the decisions that are coming
up on how quickly to hand over authority to Iraqi
units. Weve rushed the transition and soon lost many
areas that we had before. This time its about having
enough combat power to stay.
But what is different now is the political environment
in the United States. While Democrats in Congress
relented this week and dropped demands to attach a
schedule for withdrawal to a bill to finance military
efforts in Iraq, White House officials concede that
they have bought a few months, at best.
By the fall, they say, they are likely to lose several
Republican senators and many members of the House who
voted with Mr. Bush in recent weeks.
During his own news conference, Mr. Bush referred on
four separate occasions to the report of the Iraq
Study Group, headed by the former Secretary of State
James A. Baker III and the former Congressman Lee H.
That report, about which Mr. Bush appeared distinctly
unenthusiastic when it was issued in December, called
for the withdrawal of all American combat troops by
the end of March 2008. Mr. Gates was a member of the
study group, though he resigned to take up his current
post before the report was written.
David E. Sanger reported from Washington and David S.
Cloud from Baghdad.