Troop pullback foreseen in Petraeus status report

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Intent on demonstrating progress, the top U.S. commander in Iraq is expected by senior Bush administration officials to recommend removing American troops soon from several areas, possibly including Anbar province.

According to the officials, Gen. David Petraeus is expected to propose the partial pullback in his September status report to Congress. Administration officials who support the current troop buildup hope Petraeus' recommendations will persuade Congress to reject pressure for a major U.S. withdrawal.

The recommendation would authorize U.S. commanders to withdraw troops from places that have become less violent and turn over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces. But it does not necessarily mean that Petraeus will call for reducing the overall number of troops. Instead, he could move the forces to another hot spot or use them to create a reserve force to counter any rise in violence.

"That is the form of the recommendation we are anticipating him to come back with," said a senior administration official. But referring to the redeployment options, the official said, "I just don't know which of those categories he is going to be in."

Petraeus has not told the White House where he might recommend reductions. But military commanders in recent briefings have indicated that Ninevah province and Mosul in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, like Anbar province in the west, could be suitable sites for U.S. withdrawals.

U.S. commanders have found in the past that pulling out too soon and leaving pacified areas to unprepared Iraqi troops can lead to a resurgence of militant activity. In Mosul, where U.S. officials have slashed the number of forces, a devastating series of bomb attacks yesterday killed at least 175 people.

Tal Afar, a town northwest of Baghdad that has been cited by President Bush as a key U.S. success, also might be undergoing a rise in violence after a period of stability.

Petraeus has been keeping a "close hold" on the recommendations he intends to deliver next month, according to a senior military officer in Baghdad. But the officer said Petraeus wants to ensure that any moves he makes do not cause violence to flare up.

"He doesn't want to lose the gains we have made," said the military officer who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because the report is being developed.

Some officials say they expect that Petraeus will push for maintaining the current force level for at least six months, arguing that it will allow him to build upon security improvements in Baghdad. U.S. force levels reached 162,000 this month, an increase of about 30,000 from the beginning of the year, when the U.S. troop buildup began.

Another defense official, who has been part of Iraq planning but skeptical of the troop increase, said moving troops out of Anbar could make sense to the White House because doing so would enable the administration to show that improved security translates into a reduction in forces.

Cutting troops in Anbar would also eliminate the need to request more forces to secure areas around Baghdad, where the United States has been focusing much of its military effort.

"If the Marines are having so much success in Al Anbar, maybe we redeploy them to some other hot spot," said the defense official. Administration officials have cited improved ties with local Sunni leaders in Anbar with helping to ease violence and curb the power of the insurgency.

Not all military commanders favor reducing troops in more stable areas. In a news conference last month, Marine Maj. Gen. Walter Gaskins, the commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, cautioned against reducing forces there too quickly. Gaskins argued that the added forces had allowed the Marines to eliminate havens used by the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq.

A "persistence presence" of U.S. forces, he said, would help give Iraqi security forces more experience and confidence, and the ability to keep militants out.

"It takes time to gain experience," he said. "I see that experience happening every day, but I don't see it happening overnight."

But division and brigade commanders in other parts of Iraq have said that they anticipate recommending further reductions. Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. "Randy" Mixon, the U.S. division commander for northern Iraq, said last month that he anticipates cutting the number of troops in his area but emphasized reductions should be made slowly.

The 1st Cavalry Division's 4th Brigade has moved forces out of combat roles in Mosul and other cities, and into assignments such as full-time advisers embedded with Iraqi units.

Col. Stephen M. Twitty, the brigade commander, said in an interview before yesterday's bombings that the U.S. combat force there had been reduced from the size of a division, or nearly 20,000, to battalion-size, typically about 1,000.

The senior officer in Baghdad said that while Petraeus would discuss his broad recommendation for adjusting operations, he will avoid detailed public discussion of where he intends to reposition specific brigades.

The officer said Petraeus would not go deeply into detail in an open session. "The future plan, how he thinks we can move forward, you really do not want to broadcast that to the world," he said.

Julian E. Barnes and Peter Spiegel write for the Los Angeles Times.

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