By Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker
The New York Times
Tuesday 25 March 2008
Washington - Troop levels in Iraq would remain nearly the same through 2008 as they have been through most of the five years of war there, under plans presented to President Bush on Monday by the senior American commander and the top American diplomat in Iraq, senior administration and military officials said.
Mr. Bush announced no final decision on future troop levels after the video briefing by the commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the diplomat, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker. The briefing took place on the day when the 4,000th American military death of the war was reported and just after the invasion's fifth anniversary.
But it now appears likely that any decision on major reductions in American troops from Iraq will be left to the next president. That ensures that the question over what comes next will remain in the center of the presidential campaign through Election Day.
General Petraeus, speaking to Mr. Bush by secure videoconference during a two-hour meeting of the National Security Council, recommended putting off decisions on further troop reductions for a month or two after the departure in July of five extra brigades sent last year to help secure the nation, the officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely about internal deliberations.
There would be more frequent reviews after that to see when withdrawals might be allowed to resume, without any predetermined outcome and, given the time required to put troops into motion, little likelihood of big reductions on short timetables.
During the briefing to the president, General Petraeus laid out a number of potential options, the officials said, but avoided using the term "pause." That word has gained traction here in Washington over recent weeks to describe the plateau in troop levels that is widely expected to last through the fall elections and perhaps beyond.
Instead, he described the weeks after the departure of the extra brigades ordered to Iraq in January 2007 as a period of "consolidation and evaluation," a phrase first used publicly by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates during a visit to Iraq in February.
The officials said that Mr. Bush and General Petraeus, recognizing public and Congressional wariness about the toll of the war, would publicly hold out the possibly of withdrawing more troops, but only if conditions allowed it. Mr. Bush, in particular, is eager to end his presidency with the appearance that things are getting better in Iraq.
A review of conditions in Iraq roughly once a month, as opposed to the large, formal reviews that have taken place every six months, would be likely to prevent long debates like the one that began almost the moment General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker reported to Congress last September on the progress of the troop increase up to that point. The withdrawal of the additional troops began in December and will be completed in July.
The two men are to appear on Capitol Hill again on April 8 and 9.
These more frequent reviews are advocated, officials said, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by the military's Central Command, which is responsible for operations across the region, including those in Afghanistan. The reviews would determine how many more brigades, if any, could be ordered out of Iraq in the final months of the Bush presidency.
Reducing the troops in Iraq as much as is feasible has been a priority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are to brief Mr. Bush this week. The Joint Chiefs have argued in favor of finding ways to ease the strain of the war in Iraq on military training and morale and to balance General Petraeus's plans for Iraq with the need to prepare for other potential conflicts. A decision to suspend further reductions has already prompted criticism from Democrats in Congress, especially as the presidential primary campaign has intensified.
The two Democratic candidates, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, have proposed more rapid withdrawals of troops, though on different timelines. The Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, has advocated following a policy close to that of President Bush's.
Mr. Bush on Monday addressed the milestone of the 4,000th death during a brief statement at the State Department, where he met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other senior aides. In a statement that began haltingly, he expressed his sympathies for the families of those killed, both soldiers and diplomats, and sought to put their deaths in historical context.
"I have vowed in the past, and I will vow so long as I'm president, to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain; that, in fact, there is a outcome that will merit the sacrifice that civilian and military alike have made; that our strategy going forward will be aimed at making sure that we achieve victory," he said.
By many accounts, the addition of five combat brigades last year, which raised the American troop level to a peak of nearly 170,000 from 132,000, was a factor in helping reduce violence in Iraq. But Mr. Bush and his aides are described as wary of risking the gains.
Mr. Bush, according to officials, could decide to make no further reductions in troops after the departure this summer of the last of the additional troops, leaving roughly 140,000. That number includes the 15 combat brigades in Iraq before the troop increase, as well as additional support, training and other units that are expected to stay.
Senior Army planning officers say it typically takes about 45 days to withdraw a combat brigade, meaning that only two or three more brigades - at most - could be withdrawn before the end of the year, which would leave troop levels far above 100,000.
At the same time, a fresh brigade now on the rotation schedule for Iraq would need to know 70 to 90 days in advance of a change in plans, in particular as heavy equipment is loaded long before the troops step onto transport planes.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, as part of a study ahead of their report to Mr. Bush at the Pentagon on Wednesday, have been analyzing how those brigades that may not be sent to Iraq can be used best, with options including greater attention to training as well as whether missions or elsewhere can be bolstered.
Another factor that may complicate the decisions on troop levels this fall is the anticipation of provincial elections across Iraq in October. For each previous nationwide election, American force levels actually were increased significantly to provide security for the voting.
Michele A. Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research organization, said that many factors weighed on General Petraeus and other commanders as they considered recommendations to the president. Those included the coming Iraqi regional elections, as well as the period of transition that will follow the American election in November.
Ms. Flournoy expressed concern that some officials, lawmakers and analysts were already looking beyond the Bush presidency, when, she said, the administration needed to keep pressing for more meaningful progress by the Iraqi government to provide security and bridge ethnic and sectarian divisions.
Referring to the troop increase ordered last year, she said, "The only happy ending to the surge is for it to produce some strategic results, which it has yet to do."
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In: Iraq, Afghanistan, News, Middle East
Tags: Bush, Cheney, Republican, Scum, Traitors, Soldiers, Military, Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, War, Iraq, Iran, Nukes, Failures, UnAmerican, Neo-Cons,
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