A top American military commander says there could soon be a further reduction in the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, based on recommendations from commanders in the field. The head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, spoke to reporters in Washington.
General Petraeus was asked whether he thinks he can meet President-elect Barrack Obama's 16-month timeline for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. He did not answer directly, but said more reductions are on the way soon. "We have, as you know, gone from 20 ground maneuver brigade combat teams down to 14. There are additional recommendations that we're examining right now that in the weeks ahead will probably surface. And we'll see where we go from there," he said.
General Petraeus commanded U.S. troops in Iraq until last October, and now supervises both the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war, as well as all U.S. military activity in the Middle East and Central Asia. He says the U.S. military role in Iraq has already changed, partly due to the new security agreement that took effect on January first, and he says more changes will come throughout this year.
"In so many respects this coming year is a year of transition, not just with the security agreement but also our forces will transform into a support, advisory, assistance role over the course of the year ahead, as we are also reducing the numbers of our forces," he said.
General Petraeus has a key role in balancing the desire among U.S. military officers, and the president-elect, to increase the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan against concerns that too rapid a withdrawal from Iraq could lead to instability. Military officers say they can not send as many troops to Afghanistan as they would like until they can reduce the troop level in Iraq, where Petraeus repeated Thursday progress made in the last year remains "fragile."
The general would not say exactly when or how many troops he expects to take out of Iraq this year. But 10 days ago, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps told CBS News he wants to shift the troops he has in western Iraq to Afghanistan. Western Iraq is fairly quiet these days, and the marine commander, General James Conway, said he would rather have them in Afghanistan where there is more fighting to do against a resurgent Taliban.
At the same conference where General Petraeus spoke, sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Iraqi government's National Security Advisor Moafaq al-Rubaie also spoke of a change in the U.S.-Iraq relationship this year. Al-Rubaie said the Iraqi government and the incoming Obama administration need to quickly negotiate an implementation plan for the other, less well-publicized agreement that went into effect on New Year's Day. That is a Strategic Framework Agreement, which outlines the long-term U.S.-Iraq strategic relationship.
"Bush era in Iraq was liberation, security, security, security. Obama era should be strategic relationship, more holistic relationship, economy, education, cultural, scientific, religious relationship with the United States," he said.
Mr. al-Rubaie said such a program would ensure that Iraq is, in his words, "firmly…heading west."