WASHINGTON - The top American ground commander in Iraq said yesterday that he expected no reductions this year in the 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, although by next March there could be a withdrawal of four or five brigades, as many as 16,000 soldiers.
Lt. Gen. John R. Vines offered the most detailed estimate to date of possible troop reductions as some members of Congress are urging a withdrawal timetable and some opinion polls show that most Americans want U.S. soldiers to start coming home.
In March, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior U.S. officer in Iraq, said he expected "fairly substantial reductions" in forces by the same time next year, though last week Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld would say only that he has yet to receive a recommendation on force levels and that U.S. commanders in Iraq are "constantly reviewing" troop levels.
When major combat was declared over on May 1, 2003, U.S. troops in Iraq numbered about 150,000, a figure that was slated to drop to 105,000 in May 2004. But with the stubborn insurgency, defense officials decided to keep the force at about 135,000.
Vines, speaking with reporters at the Pentagon through a video link from Baghdad, said he expected no sizable decreases in U.S. troop strength through December. Iraq is scheduled to draft a constitution by mid-August, submit it to voters in an October referendum and hold general elections by the end of December.
The final decision on troop levels would be made by the Pentagon leadership, said Vines, adding that he would take part in those discussions.
"I would not be prepared to recommend a drawdown prior to the December election, certainly not any significant numbers," he said. But Vines said Casey's expectation of fairly substantial cuts "probably is still valid" and there would be a drawdown in U.S. troops after the election "because Iraqi security forces are more capable."
In response to a question, Vines said the U.S. reductions would translate into four or five brigades of as many as 3,200 soldiers each.
"It would probably be somewhere in that range. That would be my guess. A huge, bold shift that injects a lot of risk into the situation is probably not a wise course of action," he said.
Increase, then decrease
Vines also said he does not envision an increase in U.S. forces in advance of the Iraqi elections, though some Pentagon officials noted that with the next rotation of American troops - beginning this fall and extending into early next year - there could be a temporary boost in the overall number. During last fall's rotation, for example, U.S. troops in Iraq rose by 12,000, to 150,000, a figure that remained constant through January's election and was reduced at the end of March to the current level.
As a result, cautioned Pentagon officials, any reduction in U.S. forces early next year might come from that higher, temporary "bump-up" number and not the current 135,000 troops.
Vines said commanders are continually assessing the strength of the insurgency as well as the readiness of the Iraqi security forces. Officials have said there are about 60 insurgent attacks per day, down from about 70 per day last fall but up from the 30-per-day estimate shortly after January's election.
Vines said the number of attacks against the Iraqi civilian population in May was the highest since major combat ended in May 2003. And officials said June appears likely to become one of the deadliest months for U.S. troops in Iraq. In May, 67 American military personnel died from combat during the entire month - the fourth-deadliest month since U.S. troops entered Iraq in March 2003.
"I'm assuming that the insurgency will remain at about its current level," said Vines. "What we see in terms of numbers of attacks, what we see in numbers of tips, what we see in the flow of foreign fighters - which is quite small - it is relatively static," he said. "It's not growing. It's not spreading.
"And clearly we know that insurgents will do everything they can to disrupt ratification of a constitution," said Vines.
As far as Iraqi security forces, which now number about 169,000 and are expected to increase to 200,000 by December, "on a whole, they're doing quite well," Vines said. While "many strong leaders" have emerged in the Iraqi security forces, he said, "mid-grade leaders and other units still have to be found, and let's just be honest about that."
Some American officers in Iraq have complained that, overall, the Iraqi forces are not adequately trained or well-led and are unable to carry out combat operations without substantial assistance from U.S. forces.
Shoulder the load
Earlier this year, American officials were hopeful that the Iraqi security forces would soon be able to bear a greater load of the fighting. Gen. John P. Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the region, told a March 1 congressional hearing that the "goal" was to have Iraqi forces take the lead in fighting the counterinsurgency "in the majority of the country" by the end of the year.
"And I think in 2005 they'll take on the majority of tasks that need to be done," he said.
Now, some lawmakers are calling for a timetable for a reduction in U.S. forces. Last week both Republicans and Democrats introduced a resolution calling on President Bush to announce an exit strategy from Iraq and start bringing American troops home by Oct. 1, 2006.
"After 1,700 deaths, over 12,000 wounded and $200 billion spent, we believe it is time to have this debate and discussion," said Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, who was among those supporting the measure.
Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, predicted that the American commitment in Iraq would continue for years.
"I don't think Americans believe that we should cut and run out of Iraq by any stretch of the imagination," McCain said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press. "But I think they also would like to be told, in reality, what's going on. And, by the way, I think part of that is it's going to be at least a couple more years."