As public sentiments against the Iraq war continues to mount and members of the President’s own party raise questions about the conflict, the Pentagon now says it plans to shrink the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, currently 155,000, to about 138,000 after the December 15 Iraqi elections and is considering dropping the number to about 100,000 next summer if conditions allow.
The admission comes as President George W. Bush stubborly promises to “stay the course” and steps up criticism of those who question is war policies.
And while officials says troops reductions are on the table, they hedge their claims by saying a variety of planning scenarios, including the possibility of no cut in troop levels, are being reviewed based on political and security conditions in Iraq and progress in developing U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces.
The officials stressed no decisions had been made. This comes amid intensifying debate in the U.S. Congress over whether U.S. troops should be withdrawn after 2-1/2 years of war in Iraq.
“The United States military looks at the full range of things that could occur in Iraq and makes plans accordingly, and makes plans for conditions that would lead to a smaller coalition force as well as conditions that would lead to a larger coalition force,” said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Whitman said the plan was to drop back to 138,000 troops, considered the recent baseline level for the U.S. force, following the December 15 elections in which Iraqis will select a new permanent government.
The Pentagon increased U.S. troop levels in Iraq ahead of the October 15 referendum in which Iraqis approved a constitution, and the U.S. force peaked in October at about 161,000, the highest level of the war. After temporarily dropping by several thousand troops, the size of the U.S. force again is rising to help provide security for the December 15 elections.
In March and again in July, Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, predicted a “fairly substantial” reduction in American forces next spring and summer if Iraq’s political process goes positively and progress is made in developing Iraqi security forces. Pentagon officials said in August that meant a reduction of perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 troops from the level of 138,000 then in Iraq.
A defense official, who asked not to be named, said such a cut remains under consideration, but options for a smaller cut or no reduction remain on the table.
“There is the potential over the course of next summer to get to 100,000. Nothing is going to happen fast. It will all be phased,” said the official.
“If you start going down below that, you might be sending a message that we’re cutting and running,” the official added.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. John Vines, said on Tuesday a “precipitous pullout” of U.S. forces would be destabilizing to Iraq.
The considerations come amid debate in Congress over the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, an influential Democrat on military affairs who fought as a Marine in Vietnam and voted for the Iraq war, called last week for U.S. forces to be withdrawn within six months.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Tuesday she suspected American forces “are not going to be needed in the numbers that they’re there for all that much longer” due to progress being made by the Iraqis.
Defense officials said the political debate will not drive decisions on troop levels.
U.S. forces are engaged in a fierce fight with insurgents. There have been 2,108 U.S. military deaths in a war that began in March 2003, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, with another 15,804 troops wounded in action. Thousands of Iraqis have also been killed.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is forecasting an improving security situation. Last week he said, “In terms of Iraq, the insurgency is going to diminish, I think, after these elections.”
“So I think we’ll see the coalition forces being able to pare down,” Rumsfeld said.