WASHINGTON – Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace denied late Friday that he will recommend to President Bush that the U.S. cut the number of troops stationed in Iraq almost by half next year.
The Los Angeles Times had reported in its Friday editions that Pace would make that recommendation privately to the president before he steps down in October.
"The story is wrong," Pace's office said late in the day. Earlier, Pace's office had refused to confirm or deny the report, saying only that it was speculative and that the Joint Chiefs chairman had made no decision.
Earlier in the day, prior to Pace's denial of the story, America's top military brass had appeared at odds over the course of the Iraq war. As rumors swirled that Pace would recommend a significant troop reduction, a key ground commander warned that such a move would be "a giant step backwards."
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who commands the central sector of Iraq, told reporters via video link at the Pentagon that such a drawdown would cause the military to lose all the gains it has made since the beginning of the buildup earlier this year.
"In my battlespace right now, if soldiers were to leave, coalition soldiers were to leave — having fought for that terrain, having denied the enemy of their sanctuaries, what will happen is the enemy would come back," Lynch said.
"He'd start building the bombs again. He'd start attacking the locals again, and he'd start exporting that violence into Baghdad. And we would take a giant step backwards," he added.
Lynch was reacting to question about withdrawing 5,000 troops from Iraq by December, a number proposed Thursday by Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
The White House on Friday sidestepped questions about force-level recommendations, and instead said tried to direct attention to the upcoming report from Gen. David Petraeus.
"The president has received no recommendations regarding our future force posture in Iraq," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Friday, speaking at the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. He said he expected a lot of varying degrees of recommendations to shake out between now and when the Petraeus' report is delivered.
"The most important thing is to wait for Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador (Ryan) Crocker to return from Baghdad and make their report to Congress, the president and the American people," Johndroe said.
The administration, however, has laid groundwork indicating it expects to keep its troop levels at roughly the same size into next spring, citing slow but steady progress in tamping down sectarian violence.
That success is what the administration says the Iraqi government needs to get its political house in order, which in turn is what will allow U.S. forces to begin drawing down. The administration is pushing for troop levels to come down to about 130,000 next year.
"If it's going to take time, and if we can't afford to just walk away from this, then ... we better get ourselves structured for the long haul," one administration official told the newspaper on condition of anonymity.
The emerging strains between military leaders comes just one day after the administration's intelligence agencies released their latest declassified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, and a key Republican senator called for a withdrawal of 5,000 troops by the end of this year.
The report assessed that there have been some successes in restraining sectarian violence, but cast serious doubts on the Iraqi government's ability to reach the level of political reconciliation needed to bring peace to its warring religious and ethnic factions.
Nevertheless, supporters of maintaining high troop levels have evidence in the estimate supporting their claim:
"We assess that changing the mission of coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) from establishing a safe haven would erode security gains achieved thus far," the report stated.
Warner is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is viewed as a bellwether on national security policy.
Last year he made waves when after a trip to Iraq, he said he believed the country was "drifting sideways." This year he supported a measure that called for withdrawal, but did not go so far as Democrats who called for date-certain withdrawals.
On Thursday, Warner said, "We must start an orderly, carefully planned, thought-out redeployment," adding that "in my humble judgment, that will get everybody's attention."
Warner — who just returned from a trip to Iraq with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. — said that removing 5,000 troops from Iraq would not destabilize the country, and would not take away from the military's efforts to train Iraqi forces.
The drawdown would instead, he said, send a "very clear signal" that the United States has a plan to leave Iraq, and Iraq is not being given "a blank check" by the United States.
"Time has come to put some meaningful teeth into those comments, to back them up with some clear, decisive action to show that we mean business," he said.
Warner's comments contrast with the administration's more hard-line critics — chiefly Democrats.
Levin drew the ire of Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki this week when he said the Iraqi parliament should oust al-Maliki because of his inability to bring the needed political reconciliation.
Bush followed by saying that decisions should be up to the Iraqi parliament alone, but the absence of a direct endorsement for Al-Maliki prompted the Iraqi leader to issue harsh words Wednesday for U.S. leaders.
Bush responded with unflinching support for his Iraqi counterpart, telling an audience gathered at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City, Mo., that al-Maliki is "a good man with a difficult job." Bush also took up the fight against Levin and others.
"It's not up to the politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position. It is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy and not a dictatorship," Bush said.
The president's remarks did not deter more prominent Democrats from also blasting the al-Maliki administration.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who is running for president, agreed with Levin's call for al-Maliki's ouster.
"I share Sen. Levin's hope that the Iraqi Parliament will replace Prime Minister Maliki with a less divisive and more unifying figure when it returns in a few weeks," Clinton said in a statement released Wednesday.
Clinton is also among a number of Democrats who now are agreeing that the troop surge has shown some successes, but believe the time has come for troops nevertheless to begin coming home.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told reporters on Thursday that Maliki has been "a failure."
And, earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged again to do battle with the administration.
"Today our soldiers remain caught in the middle of a civil war and the president's strategy is still failing to deliver the political solution necessary for Iraq's stability. ... A change of course in Iraq is long overdue, and Congress will continue to fight for that change in the coming weeks," Reid said.