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White House Said to Debate ’08 Cut in Iraq Troops by 50%

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/26/washington/26strategy.html?ei=5065&en=693b2898aabb81e2&ex=1180756800&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print May 26, 2007 White House
    Message 1 of 1 , May 26, 2007
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/26/washington/26strategy.html?ei=5065&en=693b2898aabb81e2&ex=1180756800&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print

      May 26, 2007
      White House Said to Debate ’08 Cut in Iraq Troops by
      50%
      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
      increase.

      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
      next April.

      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 aren’t sustainable in Iraq, they aren’t
      sustainable in the region, and they will be
      increasingly unsustainable here at home,” said one
      administration official who has taken part in the
      closed-door discussions.

      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 administration’s 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 president’s
      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.

      “We’ve 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. “We’ve rushed the transition and soon lost many
      areas that we had before. This time it’s 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.
      Hamilton.

      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.
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