Pentagon recommends holding US troops levels in Iraq steady until February

Proposed February troop reduction would coincide with increase in troops sent to Afghanistan.

The Pentagon is recommending that the United States retain its current troop levels in Iraq until next February, when the military would begin redirecting soldiers to Afghanistan. The New York Times reports that the confidential recommendation is a compromise between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who want to increase America's presence in Afghanistan, and Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq.

The number of American combat brigades in Iraq would shrink to 14 in February from 15, according to the recommendation. All told, the number of American forces in Iraq, currently about 146,000, would drop by nearly 8,000 by March.
The reduction is smaller than some officials had earlier suggested might be possible before President Bush leaves office in January, given the significant decline in violence in Iraq. But it reflects the caution of Gen. David H. Petraeus, who is leaving his post as the senior American commander in Iraq this month, about the still-unsettled situation in Iraq.

The recommendation also calls for the redeployment of an Army brigade and a Marine battalion, totalling some 4,500 troops, to Afghanistan early next year, writes the Times. American commanders in Afghanistan have asked for three more combat brigades to be deployed to the country to fight the resurgent Taliban. The Los Angeles Times reports that the plan represents a hard-won compromise between Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Joint Chiefs had hoped for a sharper cut – of up to 10,000 troops – by the end of the year. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, had pushed to keep 140,000 troops, or 15 combat brigades and support personnel, until next June. ...
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secret ary, declined to discuss the specifics of the recommendation but said it bridged divisions among military leaders. "I can tell you that all these leaders are fundamentally in agreement on how we should proceed in Iraq," Morrell said in a statement. "They came to agreement after serious and lengthy discussions about the dramatic security gains in Iraq, the threats that still exist there and the uncertainties that remain."

The Los Angeles Times writes that, while Pentagon officials emphasize that the plan has not yet been approved by President Bush, "over the last 18 months, Bush has deferred to Petraeus, who has accepted the compromise." The White House says that Bush is considering the Pentagon's recommendation. The recommendation for a tentative troop shift comes as the pressure on US commanders in Afghanistan is increasing. The Christian Science Monitor reports that some commanders have been unusually vocal in criticizing the current focus on Iraq to the exclusion of Afghanistan.

Last week, Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, made a public plea for some of his 25,000 marines in Anbar Province in Iraq, to be redeployed home so the service can send more Marines to Afghanistan as soon as early next year. ...
General Conway was as blunt as he was politic in his public statement, essentially taking Petraeus to task for his caution in redeploying troops out of Iraq. "He's the first four-star who has openly challenged Dave Petraeus's view of Iraq," says one official close to the debate on troop levels within the government.

Although hesitant to reduce the troop presence in Iraq, Petraeus told the Financial Times that Iraqi security is much improved.

Gen Petraeus said Iraq was a "dramatically changed country" from when he assumed command in February 2007. He said attacks had plummeted from a daily rate of 180 in June last year to about 25 recently. He mused that "there is certainly a degree of hope that was not present 19 months ago".
Asked whether it was feasible that US combat forces could leave Baghdad by July, he said: "Conditions permitting, yeah.
"The number of attacks in Baghdad lately has been . . . probably less than five [a day] on average, and that's a city of 7m people," Gen Petraeus told the Financial Times.

Much of the credit for the improved security in Iraq has been given to the recently ended "surge" of five extra combat batallions in Iraq. But The Washington Post writes that his new book, "The War Within," Post editor Bob Woodward says that is not the case.

The book ... says that the U.S. troop "surge" of 2007, in which President Bush sent nearly 30,000 additional U.S. combat forces and support troops to Iraq, was not the primary factor behind the steep drop in violence there during the past 16 months.
Rather, Woodward reports, "groundbreaking" new covert techniques enabled U.S. military and intelligence officials to locate, target and kill insurgent leaders and key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Woodward does not disclose the code names of these covert programs or provide much detail about them, saying in the book that White House and other officials cited national security concerns in asking him to withhold specifics.

Woodward also writes that the US spied on Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, though several senior US officials questioned whether it was worth the risk.

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