The second-ranking U.S. military commander in Iraq says he expects to keep about 130,000 American troops in the country through the end of this year, when Iraq has a series of elections planned, and then to make a fairly rapid withdrawal of most of the troops by President Barack Obama's deadline at the end of August 2010.
Speaking via satellite from Iraq, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin indicated that he does not expect any further American troop reductions in Iraq this year, beyond the cut of 12,000 troops announced on Sunday.
"Well, I think what we have right now is what we plan on having for the foreseeable future," said General Austin. "And again, it's hard to predict that. It will depend on whether or not security, the trends, continue to improve, or if things begin to take a turn in the other direction. But I'm fairly confident that we'll be able to maintain what we have."
U.S. officials have stressed the need to help Iraqi forces maintain security for local and national elections this year, and to further improve the capabilities of the Iraqi army and police.
President Obama says U.S. forces will no longer engage in routine combat missions after August of next year. Instead, they will train Iraqi units, provide aerial surveillance and other support resources the Iraqis do not have and protect American troops and civilians. What the president calls the "residual force" of 35,000 to 50,000 troops would also conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions, as necessary.
The Iraq drawdown, in part, is linked to the ability of the U.S. military to maintain a higher troop level in Afghanistan, which President Obama announced last month in response to increased insurgent attacks there during the past year.
Lieutenant General Austin left open the possibility that if security deteriorates, the Iraq drawdown schedule could change. But he said he believes the Iraqis will be able to take on the burden of most security operations in their country by next year. He also expressed confidence that U.S. logistics experts will be able to get about 100,000 troops and their equipment out of Iraq in about eight months next year - a much faster pace than the president and others had originally envisioned.
"I am confident that the forces that are required to be moved out of country will have the ability to do that in an orderly and measured fashion," he said. "And I'm also confident that based upon the progress that the Iraqi security forces have made, we'll be able to continue to provide the level of security that will be required for the future."
The residual U.S. force is to stay in Iraq for a little more than a year, and to withdraw by the end of 2011 as required by last year's U.S.-Iraq agreement. General Austin, who will soon end a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq, says the country is close to achieving sustainable security, but that it is not there yet. He says long-term security in Iraq will have to be provided by Iraqi forces.