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Iraq withdrawal: How many US troops will remain?

The Obama administration is considering a plan to leave about 3,000 support troops behind at the end of the year, if Iraqis agree. But reports suggest that the Pentagon is angling for more.

By Staff writer / September 7, 2011

US Army soldiers confer during a patrol outside Contingency Operating Site Taji north of Baghdad on Aug. 7.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File

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Washington

The Obama administration is considering dropping the president’s commitment to withdrawing all US troops from Iraq by the end of the year in favor of keeping several thousand military trainers there.

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The plan is already running into roadblocks in Iraq and in the US. In Washington, some political leaders are calling on President Obama to leave no troops behind, while others say the president should heed his military commanders on the ground and keep far more troops than the 3,000 to 4,000 he is considering.

On Tuesday, three of the Senate’s big guns on military affairs – John McCain (R) of Arizona, Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, and Joe Lieberman (I) of Connecticut – issued a statement criticizing the 3,000 number as “dramatically lower than what our military leaders have consistently told us … they require.”

US military commanders, led by Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the senior commander in Iraq, are proposing that up to 18,000 US troops remain in Iraq after the year-end pull-out date. Currently, about 45,000 US troops are in Iraq.

The military request for a higher residual force reflects a conclusion by commanders on the ground that Iraqi security forces are not yet ready to forgo the support and guidance of a substantial US training presence. Officially, any remaining US forces would be limited to training functions, which is already the stated purpose of US troops in Iraq.

August was the first month of the Iraq war that registered no US casualties, a milestone that reflects a transition to Iraqi forces for ensuring the country’s security.

Yet under any scenario the function of US troops in Iraq would not realistically limited to providing training, military experts say.

“The key thing determining the number of troops you leave there, if any, will be: What is their mission?” says Kerry Kachejian, a former Army engineer who for several years directed numerous reconstruction projects in Iraq. “Is it really just to train, or is it to provide some reassurance – and some backup to the military if there is some deterioration?”

Colonel Kachejian, a reservist who has just written a book, “SUVs Suck in Combat: The Rebuilding of Iraq During a Raging Insurgency,” says US and Iraqi leaders have to balance the need for Iraqis to take full control of their own security against the reality of continuing conflict.

“It’s still not a fully stable environment,” he says.

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