WASHINGTON – Senior defense officials expressed confidence Thursday that Iraq (search) will not demand the speedy withdrawal of American troops once it takes political control this summer.
Gen. Richard Myers (search), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the possibility of such an Iraqi demand as "not a particular concern," and Lawrence Di Rita, spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search), said there is a "fairly confident belief" that the Iraqis working with American occupation authorities see a longer-term role for U.S. troops.
"We don't wish to have forces where they're not welcome," Di Rita said. The terms under which the troops would remain are "being developed," Di Rita added.
Even while the Bush administration works toward its goal of restoring Iraqi sovereignty by July 1, U.S. troops are dying at a rate of more than one per day. They are opposed by an insurgency that U.S. commanders say is aimed at preventing a stable Iraqi government from taking root.
Myers, speaking to reporters at a Washington hotel on Thursday, said U.S. forces are making significant progress. But he also said he could not estimate how long they would have to stay in Iraq to ensure stability.
"I really do believe it's unknowable," Myers said. "If I gave a good professional estimate, then that would be a standard that people would point to and, knowing that we can't know it perfectly, we'd get hammered."
His statement echoed a White House report presented to Congress this week. "It is not possible to know at this time either the duration of military operations or the scope and duration of the deployment of U.S. armed forces necessary for the full accomplishment of our goals," the report said.
For planning purposes, the Army is assuming it will have to keep roughly 100,000 troops in Iraq for at least another two years, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, told Congress recently.
Myers said that if he and the top U.S. commanders in Iraq were to "sit around a table, I think we could draw out a pretty good diagram of where we think we're going to go" with winding up the Iraq operation. "So we think about that, and we have notions or thoughts on that."
On the other hand, he said, publicly revealing those internal deliberations would be a mistake.
"Actually, the things we've sat around and talked about before have been wrong on every count," he said with a chuckle. "So that's probably another reason why I don't want to" discuss it. Although he did not mention it, U.S. officials had assumed when Baghdad fell to U.S. forces last April that tens of thousands of troops could be withdrawn within a few months.
On other subjects raised in the interview, Myers said:
-- Despite media reports to the contrary, there is no indication that the strain of fighting wars simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan will lead to an exodus from the ranks of the Army.
"There is nothing that I've heard or seen in any of the data that tells me we have any kind of crisis here at all, or even a problem," he said. "It's just not an issue." He added that he bases that judgment on frequent reports he receives from advisers on stability in the force.
President Bush declared on May 1 that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, but within weeks the number of American troops killed began rising, from 29 killed in June to 46 in July; the highest monthly total since May was 82 in November. At least 18 have been killed so far this month.
The number of wounded also has been rising.
Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington announced Thursday that it had revised upward by as much as 10 percent the number of patients and battlefield casualties it has treated. It said the increase came because the hospital switched from compiling the statistics from manifests for each medical evacuation flight to using a Walter Reed computer database.
As of Wednesday, Walter Reed had treated 2,775 patients from the Iraq war -- 175 more than it had previously reported. Of the new total, 476 were classified as battle casualties, meaning their injuries were caused by "enemy action." That is 40 more battle casualties than Walter Reed had previously reported.
On the economic front, Treasury Undersecretary John Taylor, speaking to reporters on a conference call from Baghdad, said Thursday there has been significant growth in Iraqi retail sales and in production of oil and a number of construction materials that will be needed for rebuilding the country.
"The economy is really moving along," Taylor said. "The economy is beginning to work and thrive again and grow."