WASHINGTON - As Americans in growing numbers call for a reduction in the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that it was uncertain when the Pentagon could start drawing down its estimated 139,000 troops there. His comment cast doubt over a recent prediction of significant troop reductions within a year.
In March, Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. officer in Iraq, said he expected "fairly substantial reductions" in the number of American troops there by March 2006. But Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that he has not received a recommendation from U.S. commanders in Iraq about future troop levels and did not know when he might.
The uncertainty about if and when U.S. troop levels will be reduced comes amid a spike in violence in Iraq and opinion polls showing that an increasing number of Americans want to see a withdrawal of forces. A Gallup Poll this month found that 60 percent of those surveyed believe the Pentagon should begin withdrawing some or all of its forces from Iraq. Two-thirds of the respondents in an ABC-Washington Post poll said the United States was getting bogged down in Iraq.
Yesterday, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, took to the floor of the House and said: "We are in a race against time. We are either going to lose the American people's support for this effort or break the Army. This month, the Army's recruiting numbers are far below its goal, and this is an unmistakable trend."
Rumsfeld said yesterday that U.S. commanders are "constantly reviewing" troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We receive them and then discuss them with the president and make announcements as appropriate," said Rumsfeld, who appeared with Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "But I wouldn't want to prejudge them or predict them."
Asked about Casey's predictions earlier in the spring about American troop reductions, Rumsfeld said: "I think the talk wasn't by General [John] Abizaid," the commander of U.S. forces in the region, "or General Pace or Don Rumsfeld or the president."
Rumsfeld said the United States is in talks about boosting NATO forces in Afghanistan in preparation for elections there in September. Iraq plans a referendum on a new constitution, followed by elections in December, he noted, events that could affect U.S. troop levels.
"So, we have those things that we do have to keep in mind," Rumsfeld said, "as well as the state of play on the ground."
Pace added, "It will be event-driven, not timeline-driven. And to put any kind of a timeline on it really is not a smart way to approach it."
U.S. troops were increased before Iraqi elections in January. After the elections, U.S. troop levels were reduced from about 150,000 to 139,000 in late March and early April. A new rotation of American troops is to begin in the fall and continue into early next year.
Last week, The New York Times quoted unidentified U.S. generals as saying that while a reduction in forces was expected this year, it could be two years or more before one could occur.
Asked if he was hearing that estimate from generals in Iraq, Rumsfeld said no.
The Army fell short of its recruiting goal in May, the fourth straight monthly shortfall. The Army, by far the largest of the four services, recruited 75 percent of its goal of 6,700. The Army National Guard got 71 percent of its goal of 5,791, and the Army Reserve 82 percent of its goal of 2,759.
"As soon as they start bringing the numbers down in Iraq, my recruiting will go up," said an Army officer who requested anonymity.
Skelton said it was "disheartening" that it was taking so long to train and equip adequate numbers of Iraqi forces. U.S. officials have said that a robust Iraqi security force is the only "exit strategy" for American troops.
"In over a year, they have only produced three [Iraqi] battalions - around 5,000 soldiers - capable of conducting fully independent operations," Skelton said. He noted that news reports from Iraq have quoted U.S. soldiers as disparaging their Iraqi counterparts.
"We have to speed up this process," Skelton said. "Our NATO partners have promised to lend their efforts to training Iraqi security forces. They must get more engaged and soon."
He said more trainers must be sent to work in transition teams with Iraqis.
Pace gave a more upbeat assessment of Iraqi forces.
"In May of 2004, there was one - count them, one - Iraqi army battalion that was deployable anywhere inside that country. Today there are over 100 battalions, not all of which are fully capable of independent operations right now. ... All of that is very positive."
There are 169,000 Iraqi troops, Pace said, with projections of 200,000 by December.
'A thinking enemy'
The Marine general noted the level of violence in Iraq. September was one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops, with 60 to 70 attacks daily on U.S. and Iraqi forces. After January elections, there was a lull in violence, with daily attacks dropping into the 30s. By April, with the seating of the interim government, attacks again rose to about 70 per day.
"We're operating against a thinking enemy," said Pace. "The numbers of attacks countrywide in Iraq is about 50 to 60, depending upon the day. That's not a good number. It's also not a terrible number. It's just a fact."
In an interview with David Frost broadcast last night on the BBC, Rumsfeld was asked whether the security situation in Iraq is better today than on the day after the war ended.
"Statistically, no," Rumsfeld said, according to a transcript provided by the British Broadcasting Corp. "But clearly it has been getting better as we've gone along."
Rumsfeld said he has heard "different numbers" for the size of the insurgency and that fighters are crossing the "relatively porous" borders of Syria and Iran.
"The important thing, it seems to me, is for them to recognize that this insurgency is going to be defeated not by the coalition; it's going to be defeated by the Iraqi people and by the Iraqi security forces; and that it's going to happen as the Iraqi people begin to believe they've got a future in that country - all elements have a future in that country," Rumsfeld said.