The day after President Bush marked the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, some of his top defense officials met to work on planning for the war's next phase. Defense Secretary Robert Gates brought together some of his top civilian and military advisers at the Pentagon, with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq participating from Baghdad. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Officials will provide few details of the meeting, except to say it is part of the process of preparing recommendations for President Bush on U.S. troop levels for the next several months.
The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. Ambassador, Ryan Crocker, are expected to present their semi-annual reports to the congress in three weeks. Before then, Secretary Gates has said he will send President Bush separate reports from all the commanders who attended Thursday's meeting, along with his own recommendations.
There is much speculation about what lies ahead, but two things are known - that barring unforeseen developments the extra forces President Bush ordered to Iraq last year will come home by July, and not be replaced, and that there will then be a pause in troop withdrawals so commanders can make a fresh assessment of the security situation. The U.S. troop level in Iraq is expected to come down from nearly 160,000 to about 140,000.
One man who was not in Thursday's meeting but will be at the center of that assessment is Major General Mike Oates, who will take command of coalition forces south of Baghdad in May. "I think that what's going on is prudent in terms of trying to assess where we're at. We're going to take force down and making some assessment about what has changed and what the impact is on that. How long that should last, I don't know," he said.
No one knows for sure how long the withdrawal pause will last. But President Bush made it clear in his war anniversary speech on Wednesday that he does not want to rush the process.
"We've learned through hard experience what happens when we pull our forces back too fast. The terrorists and extremists step in. They fill vacuums, establish safe havens and use them to spread chaos and carnage. General Petraeus has warned that too fast a drawdown could result in such an unraveling," he said.
A growing number of expert analysts are taking a similar view. Some who criticized the early conduct of the war, and were skeptical of the troop surge, agree that the recent security gains must be preserved. But they also warn that long term stability requires Iraqi political reconciliation.
"The factors inside Iraq are going to determine whether they're going to move forward or slide back toward civil war. And no holding of American presence can prevent that if the fundamental political decisions are not made," said Michele Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security.
Whatever the level of U.S. forces in Iraq, commanders, defense officials and analysts all say the troops' function must change to a supporting role, with Iraqi forces in the lead.
"We convert from what has been fighting a counterinsurgency to a strategic overwatch where we help Iraqi forces, which will assume virtually all of the direct counterinsurgency mission. So, yes, U.S. forces will stay. But at the present level? Not if we're successful, no," said analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Experts and officials say helping Iraqi forces means at least providing trainers, air support and logistics and a rapid reaction capability for crises, and that assumes Iraqi forces will be capable of doing most of the security work - fighting insurgents and maintaining order.
Although Flournoy says no number of U.S. troops can solve Iraq's problems unless Iraqis themselves move toward reconciliation, she also can not foresee a situation in which stability could be maintained in Iraq without keeping a substantial number of American forces in the country at least through next year, well after the next U.S. president takes office in January.
"If you add up those numbers, you get to some level. Whether it's 40,000 or 80,000, that's going to depend on the particulars. But I do see it's hard to imagine stability being maintained going down to zero in a matter of a year or two," she said.
Flournoy and other experts predict some further drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq after the pause in late summer and before the end of the year, as long as there is no security crisis. But they say the numbers coming out will likely be small as Bush administration policymakers watch carefully to see the level of competence of Iraqi forces and the pace of reconciliation across the country. That will leave the job of deciding on any further large-scale U.S. troop withdrawals to the next administration.