In a move that could portend a strategy change, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq said Sunday he has proposed reducing his troop levels and shifting next year to missions focused less on direct combat.
Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon told The Associated Press that if current trends hold, he would like to begin this troop reduction and change in mission in Ninevah province, where he said Iraqi army forces already are operating nearly independently. He has proposed shifting the province to Iraqi government control as early as August.
Ninevah's capital is Mosul, the country's third largest city.
If put in place, Mixon's approach would not necessarily mean an overall reduction in U.S. troops early next year. It could mean shifting several thousand troops from Mixon's area to other parts of Iraq for some months.
That, however, could mark the beginning of a phased move away from the heavy combat role that U.S. troops have played, at a cost of more than 3,600 U.S. deaths, for more than four years. That, in turn, could lead to the first substantial U.S. troop reductions beginning in the spring or summer -- a far slower timetable than many in Congress are demanding.
Mixon is not the only U.S. commander contemplating a repositioning or reduction of U.S. troops in the months ahead.
Col. John Charlton, commander of the 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, who leads a task force of 6,000 U.S. soldiers in a section of western Anbar province that includes Ramadi, said in an interview Friday that by January he might be ready to take a 25 percent troop cut if the Iraqi police, numbering about 6,000 now, are made stronger by then.
"The police are the keys to maintaining security from Al Qaeda," Charlton said.
Mixon acknowledged that a U.S. shift in northern Iraq meant risking gains made over recent years. But he said it would have important political benefits in Baghdad.
"To be perfectly frank with you, it puts the Iraqi central government in a position of having to assume responsibility for the security situation," Mixon said in a telephone interview from his headquarters at Camp Speicher, near the city of Tikrit, the hometown of ousted leader Saddam Hussein.
It is not clear whether the government will be capable of fulfilling that responsibility as early as next year.
Mixon also has proposed allowing Ninevah province to hold elections either late this year or early in 2008. This would ease the transition from U.S. control, he said.
"It certainly would make sense to tie the two fairly closely together," Mixon said, because it would provide political reinforcement for an important shift in security responsibility.
The government in Baghdad has failed thus far to pass legislation enabling provincial elections nationwide. That is one of the benchmarks the government set for itself this year and one that the U.S. Congress wants to see accomplished by September.
Mixon said he thinks individual provinces should hold elections when they are ready, rather than wait for all 18 provinces to do so at once.
Mixon said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top day-to-day U.S. commander in Iraq, has agreed with his proposal, which he called a contingency plan subject to further approval.
There are nearly 24,000 U.S. troops in Mixon's area of responsibility. It stretches north from Baghdad to the Turkish border, including the semiautonomous Kurdish region where three provinces -- Dahuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniyah -- already have returned to Iraqi government control.
Mixon said he might be able to reduce that total by one-half in the 12 months to 18 months after beginning a transition in January.
U.S. commanders in Baghdad and areas south of the capital have said in recent days that it is too early to say how long the current U.S. troop buildup should be maintained. Yet many lawmakers in Washington are pressing for a change in direction as early as September. That is the month when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due to report to President George W. Bush and Congress on how the troop buildup is working.
Mixon's plan suggests the possibility of a new direction for U.S. strategy. But it is not the first time that senior U.S. commanders have proposed troop reductions and shifts in mission, only to be stopped by an unforeseen surge in insurgent violence.
Last year, for example, the U.S. military was planning to reduce its forces from 15 brigades to 10 or 12 brigades. The idea was scrapped last summer. In January, Bush ordered a boost from 15 brigades to 20.
In the interview, Mixon said he is troubled by a political debate in Washington that appears to him to oversimplify the Iraq problem. He said the U.S. needs a strategy for protecting the gains it has made in Iraq, even as it transitions control to the Iraqi government.
"I don't want to stay here any longer than we absolutely have to," he said. "Neither does anybody else. But we understand the investment we've made in this place and how important it would be to have at least some type of stability in Iraq prior to us leaving in large numbers."
Northern Iraq is a diverse area with problems not felt elsewhere in the country. That includes the threat of a large-scale incursion by the Turkish military to drive out Kurdish separatists whom Turkey's government considers terrorists. Mixon said he does not foresee such a crisis.
"I'm not alarmed about it at all," he said. "I think that will be worked out in the long run."
The Kurdish rebel commander, in an AP interview Friday, said he believed the Turkish military will launch a long-anticipated offensive against separatist bases in northern Iraq shortly after Sunday's general elections in Turkey.
But Murat Karayilan, the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, denied charges by Turkey's government that his group was using its bases in Iraq to launch attacks against Turkish forces.
Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has threatened to go into northern Iraq if talks with Iraq and the U.S. after the elections fail to produce effective measures against Kurdish guerrillas.
Erdogan's ruling party is likely to win a majority of seats in the parliamentary vote.