WASHINGTON – The commander of coalition forces in northern Iraq said Friday that four Iraqi army divisions in his area will be put under Baghdad's control by next March, just the kind of transfer that a U.S. study commission reportedly is ready to embrace.
"I can certainly see great opportunity to reduce the amount of combat forces on the ground" in the north "and turn more responsibility over to Iraqi security forces," Gen. Benjamin R. Mixontold Pentagonreporters in a videoconference from his headquarters near Tikrit. He said that even after this transition is complete, U.S. troops likely would continue to support Iraqi forces and conduct combat operations against Al Qaeda "operatives."
In the Iraq Study Group report expected to be releases next Wednesday, the U.S. government would be called upon to rely more on diplomacy than deadlines in its Iraq policy. But that would rob many war critics of the impetus they wanted to force a speedy, sizable U.S. troop withdrawal from the battlefield.
The study team headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton also recommends a gradual reduction of U.S. forces and a more aggressive regional diplomacy, but sets no timetable, according to officials familiar with the group's deliberations. The report could give President George W. Bush political cover to shift tactics in the increasingly unpopular war. Click here to go to FOXNews.com's Iraq Center.
Some media reports suggested that the commission would recommend withdrawing nearly all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by early 2008, leaving behind only those troops needed to train and support the Iraqis. The reports described the recommendation as goal rather than a firm timetable.
At least some U.S. commanders in Iraq already are shifting a growing number of their troops from combat to support roles, while giving the Iraqi Ministry of Defense more control over Iraq troops.
Mixon spoke to this, specifically, on Friday.
He said he is on track to place all four Iraqi army divisions in his area under Iraqi control by March. Mixon was asked about the study group's expected recommendation to transition to Iraqi security control within a year or so.
Under the panel's recommendations, U.S. troops could be pulled back slowly from the front lines, acting as more of a support structure for the Iraqi security forces, officials said. Several officials spoke about the report on condition of anonymity because the panel's deliberations were private.
Yet advisers to the panel and others aware of its work also noted that many of the recommendations will not differ greatly from either current policy or from ideas already under debate within the administration.
Bush repeatedly has rejected a wholesale troop withdrawal or what he calls artificial deadlines, vowing that he would not "pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
"This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all," Bush said Thursday.