WASHINGTON -- Some 28,000 American combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraq over a five-month period beginning in April, under a plan to be submitted to President Bush next month by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.
Petraeus' deputy, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, said yesterday that the five combat brigades ordered by Bush to "surge" to Iraq last winter would be withdrawn at a rate of one brigade per month. The withdrawal, to be completed in August 2008, would leave about 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Odierno, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on a video link from Baghdad, cautioned that while U.S. forces in Iraq are making steady progress, "our recent tactical successes are not yet enduring trends."
"We no longer see the cycle of sectarian revenge that plagued Iraq last year," Odierno said, but he added: "There are no easy solutions in Iraq, and it will continue to require strategic patience."
The debate about troop withdrawals from Iraq will intensify next month, when Petraeus is due to report on how the "surge" of troops and new counterinsurgency tactics have affected conditions in Iraq's violent sectarian conflict.
But the withdrawal of the five combat brigades that made up the "surge" is based less on conditions in Iraq than on the simple unavailability of fresh troops. In April, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates reluctantly extended troop deployments in Iraq from 12 to 15 months in order to maintain troop levels at about 162,000. At the time, Gates declared that the extension of combat tours "upholds our commitment to decide when to begin any drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq solely based on conditions on the ground."
Since then, however, senior military leaders - including Adm. Mike Mullen, incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - have acknowledged that the surge will effectively end in April because there are no fresh replacements. What Odierno provided yesterday were fresh details on the rate of withdrawal, which many in Congress have urged be done more quickly and with deeper reductions.
Odierno's assessment was essentially a preview of what Petraeus will formally deliver to the White House and to Congress on Sept. 10 and 11. It will be accompanied by an assessment of the political situation in Iraq by the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker.
Senior U.S. officials have been careful not to rule out deeper cuts in U.S. force levels in Iraq next year.
While the U.S. military command does not intend to "backfill" or replace the departing troops, Odierno said any further troop withdrawals will depend on local security conditions.
Odierno also acknowledged several developments that underscore the widening sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq that have troubled the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
One development, recently hailed by Bush as evidence that U.S. strategy is working, is that thousands of Iraqis have rejected al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups and volunteered to join the Iraqi national army and police, particularly in Anbar province. U.S. military advisers are working with these groups, which also receive weapons and other U.S. equipment and American logistical support.
But the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad has been slow to pay these former militia members, even though they now wear Iraqi uniforms. Volunteers from elsewhere in Iraq, including Yusufiyah, Mahmudiyah and in Shiite-dominated Diyala province, have not been accepted into the security forces by the Baghdad government, Odierno said.
The reason is simple sectarian fear, said Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan. "Maliki is furious that the U.S. is arming Sunni Arab tribal militias," he said in an e-mail message, for fear that after foreign al-Qaida extremists are defeated, these Sunni-dominated army and police units will turn on Shiites.
In another sign of growing sectarian strife, Odierno said that violent attacks by Shiite militias have risen sharply over the past eight months, from about 30 percent of all violence in Iraq to almost half of all attacks last month.
U.S. officers in Baghdad said that attacks by explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs - a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb causing a disproportionately high number of American casualties - were at "an all-time high" in Baghdad in July. A U.S. spokesman, Lt. Col. Rudolph Burwell, said the command could not provide specific numbers.
Odierno has said that 73 percent of these attacks on U.S. troops have been committed by Shiite insurgents.
He also said Iranian-trained Shiites have been responsible for increasing rocket and mortar attacks on the Green Zone, the heavily fortified seat of the Iraq government and U.S. military and diplomatic headquarters. "These Iraqi extremists are being supported by Iran," he said. "We cannot allow this rogue Iranian influence to continue to ... attack the government of Iraq."
"Basically the Shia militias are all fighting amongst themselves, jockeying for power," said Jeffrey M. Bale, an expert on extremist groups and terrorism at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. He said the "good news" is that al-Qaida in Iraq is on the run, being marginalized by U.S. forces. But with intensifying Shiite infighting, he said, "I don't see how we can come out of this situation in a positive way."
Other critics, including Cole, questioned the accuracy of the allegations that Iran and Shiite militias are behind most of the violence. The plates used in EFPs are detonated into molten metal that can burn through the thickest armor. These plates are widely used in the Iraqi petroleum industry. "It is not plausible that Sunni Arabs cannot make them," Cole said, adding his suspicion that the United States is trying to "implicate Iran as much as possible."
Overall, the U.S. command in Iraq reports that total attacks in Iraq are at the lowest level of the past 12 months, and that attacks against civilians are at a six-month low. Civilian murders in Baghdad are down 51 percent, the command said, but it would not provide the actual numbers.