WASHINGTON – Top U.S. military leaders presented Defense Secretary Robert Gates with their strategy for future force levels in Iraq Thursday, including expected recommendations for a pause in troop cuts for as much as six weeks later this summer.
The hourlong videoconference marks the start of what will be a series of meetings, presentations and congressional testimony over the next two weeks that will assess the military, political and economic progress in Iraq.
During the Pentagon meeting, Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heard from the top commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
Officials said little about the discussions, but there was no indication Petraeus had backed off his call for a brief pause in troop cuts after July in order to see what effect the lower force levels have on violence in Iraq.
The key questions that Petraeus will face — and that are still unanswered — include how long will the pause will have to last in order to assess the security trends, how many troops will be able to come home once that period is over and if that will allow the Pentagon to reduce Army deployments from the current 15 months to 12 months, beginning with those who head to war in August as hoped.
"This meeting was an opportunity for the secretary to be updated on the current thinking and analysis on the way ahead in Iraq from Admiral Fallon and General Petraeus," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
He added that while this was the most recent session between the leaders, it doesn't mean that thinking won't continue to evolve until Petraeus goes before Congress on April 8.
Other military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private, said there is little disagreement between Fallon and Petraeus over the basic strategy. Gates has endorsed the wisdom of a pause but has also said that it should be brief and that he would like to continue to reduce the number of troops in Iraq after the assessment break.
Mullen, meanwhile, has said any break in troop cuts must be balanced against the strain on the force as well as the military's need to address other threats worldwide.
There has been some tension among other top military leaders over how long additional troop cuts can be delayed. The Army's chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, has expressed concern about the stress that long and repeated war deployments are putting on his soldiers and their families. And the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, has voiced similar worries about the Marines.
At the same time, however, military leaders have said repeatedly that they don't want to do anything that would jeopardize the gains they have made in Iraq.