WASHINGTON - As the U.S. administrator in Baghdad reaffirmed the United States' intention to turn over power to a new Iraqi government by June 30, the military's top officer said yesterday that he cannot predict how long American troops will remain in Iraq.
In New York, meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan backed the U.S. position that direct elections are not feasible before that date and might not be possible until the end of the year or early 2005.
L. Paul Bremer III, the senior U.S. official in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad that there are a number of options for choosing the new government that do not require moving the June 30 date for returning sovereignty to the Iraqis.
"Changes are possible, but the date holds," he said.
"There are literally dozens of ways in which to carry out this very complicated task," he said, including variations on the caucuses the United States favors or "other kinds of elections, partial elections."
Annan signaled agreement with the United States on the election issue after he and his special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, briefed representatives of 45 nations and the European Union on Brahimi's weeklong visit to Iraq.
"We shared with them our sense - and the emerging consensus or understanding - that elections cannot be held before the end of June, that the June 30 date for the handover of sovereignty must be respected, and that we need to find a mechanism to create a caretaker government and then prepare the elections ... sometime later," Annan said.
The Bush administration hopes Annan also will endorse the idea of extending the authority of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council so it could take interim control of the country on June 30.
A senior American official said yesterday that under an emerging U.S. alternative plan, the council would take control in Baghdad until an Iraqi legislature could be elected later.
The Bush administration is eager to gain U.N. approval of the idea of endowing the council with sovereignty because that would "give it legs," the official said on a condition of anonymity.
U.S. troops in Iraq
With more than 100,000 fresh U.S. troops beginning to arrive in Iraq, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he could not say how many American troops would eventually be sent or for how long.
"It's unknowable," Myers told reporters in Washington when asked how long U.S. troops will have to stay in Iraq to ensure a peaceful transition to democratic rule.
"If I gave a good professional estimate, then that would be a standard that people would point to," Myers said. "And knowing that we can't know it perfectly, we'd get hammered." He said the Pentagon is "going to have to let events dictate" when the military can leave.
Though Myers was reluctant to discuss timelines, Pentagon officials expect to keep about 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through spring 2007, officers said.
About 105,000 troops, including Army National Guard and Reserves, and active-duty Army and Marines, are heading to Iraq to replace the estimated 120,000 U.S. soldiers who have been there since the war began March 20. More than 40,000 troops have arrived for duty, Myers said, and about 30,000 have returned home. The rotation is to be completed by May.
Guard and Reserve troops will then make up about 40 percent of the U.S. force in Iraq, double the current number.
Army officials are planning another yearlong rotation of troops for 2005, which is to include about 30 percent Guard and Reserve troops, officials said. Some active-duty units that took part in the initial attack on Baghdad, such as the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, are expected to return to Iraq in 2005 for peacekeeping duty, military officials said.
Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told Congress last month that the Army expects to have more than 100,000 troops in Iraq in the 2005 rotation, as well as the one in 2006, which is to extend into spring 2007.
Myers told reporters that Pentagon planners "have notions or thoughts" on the duration of the Iraq operation, though he acknowledged with a laugh that "the things we've sat around and talked about before have been wrong on every count."
Last spring, Pentagon officials were optimistic about reducing troop levels. President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1, and military officials hinted privately that, by fall, there would be about 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. But a stubborn insurgency and a lack of allied troops to shoulder the burden required that larger numbers of U.S. soldiers remain.
Myers said Iraqi security forces are growing each day and now stand at about 200,000. Eventually, such forces will take over patrolling and other security duties, he said.
Still, Myers said, "It's never the intention of the U.S. military to leave the Iraqi forces out there on the end of a limb. We're training these folks, we're mentoring them. This is not a cut-and-run sort of thing at all."
The political future
Another unknown that affects the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is the political future of the country. Even as Bremer reiterated the U.S. intention to shift power to an interim Iraqi government by the end of June, it was uncertain how that government would be chosen or what form it would take.
Leaders of the Shiite Muslim majority, which accounts for 60 percent of the population, are pressing for direct elections rather than the indirect, caucus-based voting being planned to choose the interim government.
Even as plans are being formulated to end U.S. control, there is growing concern within the minority Sunni Muslim and Kurdish communities about a Shiite-dominated government, with some analysts warning that a civil war could take place.
"Think about how complex this is," Myers said, "trying to turn a country that has not experienced democracy into some sort of democracy ... a place that is inherently violent."
The question of how long U.S. troops will remain in Iraq has particular implications for the Army and its Reserve elements, which account for nearly all of the U.S. troops there now and will be about 75 percent of the force by spring.
Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, plans on temporarily increasing the 480,000-soldier Army to 510,000. The general said he wants the increase for "this emergency," which he expected to continue for four years.
'It could be a decade'
Some other officers say that timeline could be extended, depending on the world situation.
"It could be a decade at this level of commitment," said one senior Army officer, who requested anonymity.
There is growing support on Capitol Hill to permanently increase the size of the Army, with one proposal calling for a 10,000-troop increase and others trying to boost strength by 40,000 soldiers. Lt. Gen. John Riggs, who is in charge of building an Army for the 21st century, broke with his Pentagon bosses last month by saying that "substantially" more than 10,000 additional soldiers are needed to meet the service's worldwide commitments.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld continues to support a temporary increase in Army troops. He told reporters last month that the current high-paced operations, notably in Iraq, amount to a "spike" rather than a "plateau."
"We just do not expect to have 100,000, 120,000 troops in a single country permanently deployed," Rumsfeld said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.