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US Officials Assess Future Troops Levels in Iraq

The next report from the U.S. commander in Iraq is due more than two months from now. But already there is speculation about what he might recommend, and there is debate over what he should recommend. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Al Pessin reports.

The surge of 30,000 U.S. troops President Bush ordered to Iraq a year ago is already being reduced. Several thousand troops left in December, and many of the rest are expected to be out of Iraq by July. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the draw-down is on track, and he hopes it will continue even after the surge forces have come home.

"That remains my hope, that the pace of the draw-downs in the second half of the year can be what it was in the first half of the year. But as I have told General Petraeus directly, he is to make his evaluation of that possibility based solely on the conditions on the ground," he said.

General David Petraeus is the coalition commander in Iraq, and he is widely credited with making the surge successful at improving security in much of the country. His next report, which had been scheduled for March, but is now expected in April, will be a key element in determining whether President Bush orders further drawdowns or not, and how quickly the troops might leave.

On Sunday, General Petraeus told CNN he believes there will be a need for what he called "some period of assessment" after the surge troops leave to provide "some time to let things settle a bit" after what will be the withdrawal of one quarter of U.S. combat power in Iraq.

A few days later, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell downplayed the general's comments.

"I do not know that he is going to call for a pause when he comes back to us in April or when he briefs the president before then. It is just premature to judge what he's going to call for. I do not know that it will end up being a pause. It could well be, but it is not at all clear to me that is the direction he is going," he said.

But in a report from Baghdad Thursday, the New York Times quoted several unnamed military officers as saying they want a withdrawal pause of between one and three months after the surge forces leave.

Secretary Gates has said there will be three sets of recommendations sent to President Bush in April, one from General Petraeus, another from Admiral William Fallon, who is responsible for U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, and a third from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are responsible for all U.S. troops, many of whom have been called on repeatedly to serve in Iraq.

The secretary says at the time of the last evaluation in September, all three analyses agreed. This time, with improved security in Iraq, a difficult situation in Afghanistan and continuing strain on the force, there may be renewed pressure to reduce troop levels in Iraq as quickly as possible.

But some analysts and many military officers warn against risking a deterioration of security in Iraq by moving too quickly. Analyst Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, an Iraq war critic who says the surge and the implementation of a new counterinsurgency strategy have been largely successful, at least in security terms, warns against moving precipitously.

"We may be in a moment that historians looking back on this in 10 or 20 years will consider to have been a fundamental change in the situation. But if so, it's not, I would argue, a change in the situation that's likely to allow us to bring the troops home in the kinds of numbers that many would now like us to do," he said.

Biddle says even if U.S. troops transition to what the military calls an "overwatch" role, in support of Iraqi forces, they will still require substantial numbers.

"How low can you go without an increasing risk of failure becoming too great? My hunch is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 to 100,000 is probably about as much as we can sustain in steady state. If you want to stick it out at all in Iraq, the right number is the largest number we can sustain," he said.

When the surge units leave Iraq, there will be between 130,000 and 140,000 U.S. troops in the country. Democrats in Congress and the party's presidential candidates would like to get the troops home next year, but Stephen Biddle says that position should change, and the public might accept the change, if things continue to improve in Iraq.

"If the casualties come down and stay down, then I think we've got the political will to keep forces overseas for very long periods of time. And heaven knows we did it throughout the Cold War. I think if it becomes perceived as a peacekeeping mission to cement a success, as opposed to an open-ended, unending, unsolvable mess, then I think the politics of it change," he said.

Another important influence on the future U.S. position on Iraq is the progress of Iraq's political process. The Iraqi parliament is months behind schedule in passing several laws designed to promote national reconciliation and help reduce the violence. Progress on that front will affect the U.S. military assessments in April, and the American political debate and presidential election campaign that will follow.