Petraeus: More troop cuts likely in Iraq

Top US commander in Iraq said Thursday he is likely to recommend further drawdowns before leaving his post in the fall.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The top commander in Iraq said Thursday he will likely recommend further drawdowns of American troop levels in Iraq before he leaves for his next post.

Ending speculation on whether the current drawdown would continue, Gen. David Petraeus told a Senate panel Thursday that he will provide an assessment of the security situation by October that will include specific recommendations about continuing the drawdown of troops.

"I do believe that there will be certain assets that ... we'll be able to recommend can be either redeployed or not deployed to the theater in the fall," General Petraeus, now the senior four-star general in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel is considering his nomination as commander of US Central Command, Tampa, Fla., where he would oversee the entire Middle East and southwest Asia.

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As recently as last month, Petraeus had declined to commit to any further reductions, leaving open the possibility that troop levels would stay steady for the remainder of the Bush administration.

The move would help relieve the overstretched Army. It could also bolster the hopes of many in and outside the Pentagon that more troops would be made available to send to Afghanistan in early 2009.

Petraeus did not say how many troops would be pulled out, though he hinted that it could be less than a full brigade combat team, a unit that can number as high as 5,000 soldiers.

The Pentagon is already withdrawing a total of five combat brigades, effectively ending the "surge" of American troops that began about a year ago and that was credited in part for the improved security situation. Nearly three brigades have already redeployed and the remaining two units should be out by July. There are currently 155,000 American troops in Iraq.

Further troop reductions will occur based on a number of factors, not least of which is the ability of the Iraqi security forces to operate more independently of American forces. Recently, they have shown the initiative to fight Shiite groups in Basra as well as in Sadr City, Petraeus said. Meanwhile, security forces are working with American forces to rout Al Qaeda in northern Iraq near Mosul.

If President Bush's nominations proceed, Petraeus will be replaced by Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who had been the No. 2 commander in Iraq and has now been nominated to replace Petraeus.

General Odierno said the Iraqi security forces' ability to do their own "command and control" operations has seen "consistent improvement" but there is still room for progress.

The two men confronted a mostly friendly panel. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who mostly supports Bush's war policy, declared Petraeus and Odierno two of the best commanders in American military history.

The panel's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Mich., a frequent critic of the war, also praised both men for their continued service in Iraq – Petraeus has been serving three tours of duty over four years and Odierno serving two tours over two years – acknowledging that the approach under both men has brought some stability to the country.

"Regardless of one's view of the wisdom of the policy that took us to Iraq in the first place, and has kept us there over five years, we owe General Petraeus and General Odierno a debt of gratitude for the commitment, determination, and strength that they have brought to their areas of responsibility," Senator Levin said at the outset of the hearing.

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