The broad outlines are emerging of what a top U.S. commander calls a "fairly substantial" reduction in U.S. troop strength in Iraq (search) next year, as the U.S.-led coalition gradually hands over security responsibility to newly trained Iraqi forces.
But the plan — contingent on political progress in Iraq, improvements in Iraqi forces and an absence of growth in the insurgency — will leave a sizable American military presence in the most dangerous parts of this country.
The drawdown will likely begin slowly in Shiite and Kurdish areas of the country that are largely untouched by the Sunni Arab (search) terrorist insurgency. Only when the insurgency declines substantially are sizable numbers of U.S. troops likely to leave Sunni Triangle (search) flashpoints.
That means the Bush administration could find itself facing the November 2006 midterm elections with American forces still fighting and dying in Iraq.
U.S. officials have been speaking publicly about the possibility of a troop cutback next year as the Iraqis scramble to finalize their new constitution and plan for elections in December.
That would give Iraq its first fully constitutional government since the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
At the same time, the Bush administration is giving a renewed push toward training and upgrading a credible Iraqi force capable of assuming a greater role in security and bearing the brunt of the fighting.
Last month, Gen. George Casey, the most senior commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said that if all goes according to plan, it should be possible to begin a "fairly substantial" troop reduction by the spring and summer of next year.
Casey spoke as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad to encourage them to meet next Monday's deadline for parliamentary approval of the new constitution.
It appeared Rumsfeld's message was intended in part as a warning to quarrelsome Iraqi leaders that they need to get their house in order to prepare for the day when the Americans are no longer there to back them up.
"The patience of the international community, the patience of the Iraqi people and the patience of the American people will begin to impact on the ability to sustain operations," retired Maj. Gen. Bill Nash told National Public Radio on Friday.
"Likewise, of course, by next summer we'll be getting ready for congressional elections in the United States. ... So the administration is quite anxious, of course, to get this problem, if you will, behind them and turn it over to the Iraqis."
Although Casey did not offer an estimate of how troops could go home next year, Pentagon officials have mentioned a figure of 20,000 to 30,000 troops. That would still leave about 100,000 Americans in Iraq well into next year.
U.S. officials have also avoided spelling out in detail how the withdrawal would be carried out, although the reductions would probably be timed to regular rotation schedules, with units departing without being replaced.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi committee has been established to identify areas that could be handed over and to work out the technical details of the transfer.
The chairman of the committee, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, last month listed the Shiite cities of Najaf, Karbala, Samawah, Diwaniyah and Nasiriyah as well as the Kurdish areas around Sulaimaniyah and Irbil as regions that could be handed over to Iraqi control.
Both Najaf and Karbala were the scene of heavy fighting last year between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Both cities grew calm after al-Sadr accepted a peace agreement negotiated by the Shiite clerical hierarchy and after his militia suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Americans.
Already, Iraqi officials say the Americans are already preparing to leave their base in the northern part of Najaf and will relocate at another installation about 25 miles north of the city.
Notably absent from al-Rubaie's list, however, are the capital Baghdad and the towns and cities of the Sunni Arab heartland in northern and central Iraq. That's where most of the American forces are stationed — and where most of the U.S. casualties have been suffered.
Since May 2003, where the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq began, more than 70 percent of the U.S. hostile fire deaths have occurred in Baghdad, Anbar province and the Mosul area of north — none of which are deemed secure enough to transfer entirely to Iraqi control.
"The more restive parts are the more difficult parts, and one would suppose that those would not be among the first places that get turned over," Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy, told National Public Radio.