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Pause likely in U.S. drawdown in Iraq

Troop levels could settle at 'presurge' levels of 140,000.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2008

Exit: A US Army soldier left a warehouse in Mosul, Iraq, on March 25 after searching for bombmaking materials. While troops continue to battle there, the question of troops levels is coming up again in the US.

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Concerns in Iraq that recent security gains are fragile and could backslide mean that President Bush is likely to hand over to his successor a war being fought by as many as 140,000 US troops – about the same number as before the "surge" of some 35,000 troops announced in January 2007.

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The White House says Mr. Bush will not make any decisions on troop levels in Iraq until after Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, testify before Congress April 8 and 9. But with General Petraeus already recommending against further drawdowns beyond those set to take place by July, and with Vice President Dick Cheney suggesting that further reductions are unlikely to be put in place now, it seems doubtful that Bush would go in any other direction.

The review of troop levels comes just as violence in Iraq is flaring in ways that could place new question marks over US military plans. Intense fighting involving feuding Shiite militias as well as Iraqi forces in the southern city of Basra is challenging the Iraqi security forces' ability to take over combat and public-order duties more fully from their American mentors. Further complicating the decisionmaking on troop levels are growing indications that a cease-fire declared last summer by powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his Mahdi Army is unraveling.

The Bush administration is thus being pulled by competing goals and constraints. It does not want to jeopardize the gains that have been made – from signs of improving local governance to defeats inflicted upon Al Qaeda in Iraq. But at the same time, it must take into account the limits placed on it by an overstretched US military.

Yet another factor: Bush, looking to his own legacy and to the November election, wants to prove that the surge has worked.

"We're seeing clear signs of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the insurgents taking advantage of the reductions already made," says Wayne White, a former State Department policy-planning specialist for Iraq. "This talk of a pause [in a phased reduction of troops in Iraq] indicates Petraeus and others are thinking a further drawdown will create more problems for them."

Some architects of the surge are wary of even a drawdown to presurge levels. And anything beyond it, they warn, could set the United States and Iraq back to the dire straits of 2006.

Indeed, the withdrawal of the remaining surge brigades entails "considerable risk" and "will make the task of moving forward a bit harder and a little bit longer," says Frederick Kagan, a military analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington who advised the Bush administration on last year's revised Iraq strategy.

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