WASHINGTON – Major reductions in U.S. troop levels in Iraq next year appear increasingly likely, although Pentagon officials said Monday it is too early to predict the specific size and timing.
The Pentagon (search) is eager to pull some of its 135,000 troops out of Iraq in 2006, partly because the counterinsurgency is stretching the Army and Marine Corps perilously thin as casualties mount and partly because officials believe the presence of a large U.S. force is generating tacit support for anti-American violence.
It appears highly unlikely that any significant numbers will be withdrawn before the end of the year. U.S. commanders expect the insurgency to remain at or near its current strength at least until after a scheduled October referendum on a new Iraqi constitution, followed by December elections for a new government.
Attempts by U.S. officials to predict the course of the insurgency have been off the mark, and officials have been forced more than once to scrap plans to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq. The force peaked at about 160,000 in January, when extra troops were needed to bolster security for the elections.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst who closely follows progress in Iraq and visited the country last month, said in an interview that he agrees with U.S. commanders that troop reductions next year are a reasonable goal.
"The probabilities are reasonable," Cordesman said. "Is there a reasonable chance that you can begin a systematic reduction of coalition forces toward the end of the year and watch it move forward in 2006? The answer is yes. But we just don't as yet know" how political and economic progress will unfold.
Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment directly on a leaked British military assessment that raises the possibility of drastically cutting British troop strength in Iraq by the end of next year as well as sharply cutting the overall number of U.S. and allied troops by the middle of next year to 66,000.
"It's not for me to speculate on when there might be a reduction in U.S. forces," he said, adding that U.S. officials have said repeatedly for months that their goal is to begin reductions in 2006 if conditions permit.
"We look at the conditions as being the determining factor as to what the U.S. presence there needs to be, and we have contingencies for an increased presence, a steady state, and also a decreased presence," Whitman said.
The Pentagon missed a Monday deadline for submitting a report to Congress on progress in shifting security responsibilities to the Iraqis and projecting how many U.S. troops would be needed there next year. Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Congress was informed that the report is still in the works.
At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that President Bush is relying on commanders in Iraq to judge when the time is right to adjust the level of U.S. forces, based in part on an assessment of how capable the U.S.-trained Iraqi government forces are of fighting the insurgency on their own.
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense specialist at the Brookings Institution (search) think tank, said the training of Iraqi forces has progressed to the point when they will be capable of taking on a greater part of the responsibility.
"If you think in terms of simple tasks and hard tasks, and tougher and easier parts of the country, I think you can see a much greater role for the Iraqis starting next year, even if they also will have a long ways to go then," he said.
O'Hanlon said he is hopeful that the 135,000-strong U.S. force could be cut by as much as 50 percent by mid-2006.
Bush administration officials and U.S. commanders are eager to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq as soon as possible — not least because of the psychological burden imposed by the presence of an occupation force.
Lt. Gen. John Vines, the commander in charge of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters last month there is a "certain element of tacit support" for anti-U.S. feeling among Iraqis that is derived from the presence of foreign forces. He suggested the U.S. might reduce by 20,00-25,000 troops sometime in 2006.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) has made the point recently that ultimately it will fall to the Iraqis themselves to defeat the insurgency.
"Insurgencies by their nature need to be defeated by the country, the people of the country," he said in a radio interview July 5. "A foreign occupying force really can't do that as effectively."