Even as debate over the Iraq war continues to rage, signs are emerging of a convergence of opinion on how the Bush administration might begin to exit the conflict.
In a departure from previous statements, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week that the training of Iraqi soldiers had advanced so far that the current number of U.S. troops in the country probably would not be needed much longer.
President Bush will give a major speech Wednesday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in which aides say he is expected to herald the improved readiness of Iraqi troops, which he has identified as the key condition for pulling out U.S. forces.
The administration’s pivot on the issue comes as the White House is seeking to relieve enormous pressure by war opponents. The camp includes liberals, moderates and old-line conservatives who are uneasy with the costly and uncertain nation-building effort.
It also follows agreement this week among Iraqi politicians that the U.S. troop presence ought to decrease. Meeting in Cairo, representatives of the three major ethnic and religious groups called for a U.S. withdrawal and recognized Iraqis’ “legitimate right of resistance” to foreign occupation. In private conversations, Iraqi officials discussed a possible two-year withdrawal period, analysts said.
The developments seemed to lay the groundwork for potentially large withdrawals in 2006 and 2007, consistent with scenarios outlined by Pentagon planners. The approach also tracks the thinking of some centrist Democrats, such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior representative of his party on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Some analysts say the emerging consensus might have less to do with conditions in Iraq than the deployment’s long-term strain on the U.S. military. And major questions about the readiness of Iraq’s fledgling security forces remain, posing risks for any strategy that calls for an accelerated American withdrawal.
As recently as late September, senior U.S. military commanders said during a congressional hearing that just one Iraqi battalion, about 700 soldiers, was considered capable of undertaking combat operations fully independent of U.S. support. Administration officials now dismiss that measure of readiness, saying more Iraqi units are able to conduct advanced operations each day.
A former top Pentagon official who served during Bush’s first term said he believed there was a “growing consensus” on withdrawing about 40,000 troops before next year’s congressional election. That would be followed by further substantial pullouts in 2007 if it became clear that Iraqi forces could contain the insurgency.
“You’ve got the convergence of domestic pressures, Iraqi pressures and Pentagon [withdrawal] plans that have been in the works for a while,” said the former official, who requested anonymity. “This is serious.”
A senior U.S. official said that in signaling hopes for a large drawdown next year, Rice was only “stating the obvious” this week.
“It looks like things are headed in the right direction to enable that to happen in 2006,” said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
But he said those hopes could be derailed if there were setbacks. Among the upcoming markers is the Dec. 15 election for a permanent Iraqi government. Officials have said that violence is likely to increase before the vote. More than 100 U.S. troops have died in the month since the death toll reached 2,000.
U.S. officials hope that by the end of 2007, the remaining U.S. force will be small enough to not offend Iraqi sensibilities yet large enough to help Iraq’s military with reconnaissance, intelligence gathering and air power.
Such an approach may be more acceptable to Republican candidates who are worried about next year’s midterm election amid plummeting public support for the war and perhaps to GOP presidential candidates looking toward 2008.
Bush’s handling of the war has the support of about 35% of the public, according to the latest Gallup poll. Other recent surveys have shown that only 40% of Americans believe the president is honest and trustworthy.
In recent months, Bush has rebuffed questions about a withdrawal schedule, saying that providing a specific timetable would hearten insurgents and encourage them to wait out U.S. forces.
There are about 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and a widening field of critics has called for reductions.
Last week, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), known as a military hawk, said it was time for the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops. His statement initially provoked a furious administration response that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney later sought to temper.
The shift in the administration’s attitude also may reflect concern that the U.S. military can’t bear the current strains indefinitely. Some analysts believe the potential long-term damage to the armed forces, not political pressure, could be the decisive factor for Bush and his advisors.
Andrew Krepinevich, a former Pentagon official who heads the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent defense research group in Washington, argues that these strains have become a key factor informing administration thinking.
Unlike the Vietnam era, when the military had a nearly endless supply of draftees, the Iraq experience has sharply reduced the flow of recruits into the volunteer armed forces and attrition rates are alarmingly high, Krepinevich noted.
Other factors, such as federal restrictions on the frequency of National Guard deployments, also limit available personnel.
This summer, differences between the White House and some military commanders over troop reductions were the result of these problems, analysts believe. Although divisions remain within the administration, there are increasing signs that Bush may be calculating that a faster drawdown carries fewer long-term risks.
“I think the administration will yield to the reality of an Army that is apparently beginning to buckle under the strain of these long-term deployments,” Krepinevich said.
Other factors are also at work, including a changing view of Iraq’s own military capabilities. Rice’s upbeat statement Tuesday, when she asserted that the Baghdad government’s forces would “fairly soon” be able to defend their country, came just days after a brief visit to Iraq.
After meeting with political and military leaders in the northern city of Mosul, she told reporters “I am more confident than ever” about the prospects for success.
Some analysts see the same progress that Rice spoke of, yet are worried that the White House may move too fast.
Although some Iraqi units have sharply improved their capabilities, said Gary J. Schmitt, director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute, “to get a force that is really effective requires a lot more experience than this army is likely to have for years.”
Schmitt says the administration’s new signals are significant but believes that Bush has yet to resolve an internal debate between those aides who are pushing for a withdrawal to relieve domestic political pressure and others who fear that departure would cut short a successful undertaking that will create a large part of Bush’s legacy.
“They’re being pulled in two directions,” Schmitt said.
Times staff writers Ronald Brownstein and Mark Mazzetti in Washington contributed to this report.