2006 troop cuts in Iraq likely, not a pullout

Iraqi soldiers probably won't be ready to take the lead role in their nation's security before 2007, U.S. military officials say


WASHINGTON -- Against a backdrop of calls from both Iraqi leaders and the U.S. Congress to withdraw American troops, military officers and defense analysts said this week that reductions are likely in 2006 but Iraq will not be ready to take a lead role against insurgents before 2007.

"I've said all along 2006 is a key year. America fights its wars on the clock," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., who wrote a book on the Iraq war and served as commandant of the Army War College. "It's a wearing away of the American resolve, based on the body count."

Scales believes that the American military might "symbolically" turn over a province in Iraq to Iraqi forces, allowing for troop reductions of 15,000 or more. "That would send the message to the enemy - and the American people - this is not `cut and run' but a handover," he said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appeared to signal earlier this week that troop reductions are coming.

Rumsfeld said the current American troop level in Iraq - which was bumped up to 160,000 in advance of Iraqi elections next month - will return to the baseline of 138,000 after the balloting.

"My guess is we'll continue to find that the conditions will permit reductions as Iraqi Security Forces continue to grow," he said.

Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, has said that the number of U.S. troops could fall to 100,000 or below by next fall, based on security conditions in the country, continued political developments and progress with the training of Iraqi security forces.

Political developments, at least, have been coming quickly. Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders attending an Arab League conference this week demanded a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Iraq.

Last week, Rep. John P. Murtha, a decorated Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, helped focus the debate at home by calling for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq within six months. The Pennsylvania Democrat said that U.S. forces are impeding progress because they have become "the primary target" of the insurgents.

The Senate has passed a resolution, 79-19, calling for 2006 to be the year Iraqis "take the lead" for their own security and create the conditions for a "phased redeployment" of U.S. forces.

Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank, said the mood in Congress appears to mirror the unease of the American public over Iraq, although there seems to be little public support for a drastic pullout, which he said would be "tantamount to defeat."

He said he believes there is still "hope" for a positive outcome - that Iraq can build a stable government and create the necessary security forces working with the U.S. military.

Some lawmakers are saying that another reason for troop reductions is that the military has been stretched to the breaking point by repeated deployments to Iraq. The Army is short of volunteers and has been forced to accept low-quality recruits to fill its ranks. At the same time, captains and senior noncommissioned officers are leaving at a higher rate.

"We cannot - emphasize cannot - sustain 160,000 troops in Iraq this time next year without mobilizing the entire National Guard or fundamentally changing the commitments on rotations we made," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, said recently.

But one senior military officer with experience in Iraq said American officers - mostly lieutenant colonels and colonels - are continuing to tell their superiors they need more troops, though the requests are not relayed to top U.S. commanders.

"If you know what the answer, is you're not going to ask the question," said the officer, who said that any cutbacks "would primarily be a response to politics" and not the security situation.

This officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is "no way" that Iraqi security forces could take the lead in 2006. "It'll be a year or two, at best, to be really out in front doing it on their own," said the officer.

After two years of training by U.S. and coalition forces, there is just one Iraqi Army battalion - roughly 600 to 700 soldiers - capable of operating without any U.S. assistance, according to military officials.

Iraq also lacks the logistical support - including trucks and mechanics, and supply clerks and engineers - needed to survive in the field. American commanders have only recently started to create this essential support structure.

"We can't count on the domestic security forces to secure the country" for years, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank, who sees the political landscape shifting in Washington, much as it did during the Vietnam War. "The Congress is losing patience, and the president doesn't really have a satisfactory answer."

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