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Joint Chiefs Will Make Independent Assessment on Further Iraq Troop Cuts

The Pentagon's top generals and admirals will make their own assessment for President Bush on whether to continue pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in the second half of the year — independent of what Bush's commander in Baghdad recommends, the top U.S. military officer said Friday.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him on the last stop of a six-day trip that the Joint Chiefs will take into account a range of issues beyond the security situation in Iraq.

They will consider, for example, the effects of growing strain on troops and their families from multiple tours in Iraq, as well as the outlook for troop requirements in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Mullen said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced at the Pentagon on Thursday that he had asked the Joint Chiefs for their Iraq assessment, to coincide with recommendations from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, as well as Adm. William J. Fallon, the commander of American forces in the Middle East.

The Joint Chiefs intend to have their consensus view ready for Gates and the president by March or April, Mullen said.

Bush needs to hear the views from a range of senior military officers, Mullen said, on "the risks that are associated with whatever we're going to do next" in Iraq, where about 160,000 U.S. troops are on the ground in a conflict that appears, for the moment, to be leaning in favor of the U.S. and Iraq governments.

Pressed for his own view on whether more troop cuts were likely after this summer, Mullen declined to give one. He stressed that Petraeus was constantly evaluating conditions on the ground in Iraq and that any number of events — positive or negative — could happen in the months ahead that would influence a troop-cut decision.

The current plan, announced last September, is to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq by five brigades, or roughly 30,000 troops by July. The Petraeus, Fallon and Joint Chiefs assessments are to focus on how to proceed after July.

Before Bush accepted Petraeus' recommendation last September, the Joint Chiefs presented their own view. Mullen, who was then a member of the Joint Chiefs as head of the Navy, said Friday that "there were some differences" among the service chiefs last time around, "but we worked them out."

Mullen made his remarks in an interview with three reporters flying with him to San Salvador from Bogota, Colombia, where he had met with top Colombian defense officials to discuss their war against rebel forces.