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Iraq Violence Puts Troop Cuts in Doubt

Times Staff Writer

The recent explosion of violence in Iraq is forcing a debate inside the Pentagon about whether the U.S. military can proceed with plans to cut the number of troops in Iraq, Defense officials said Monday.

The violence came at a crucial time for the U.S. military: Top generals must decide within weeks whether to carry out a long-anticipated reduction in American troops this summer. Threats of civil war in the country have raised questions about the wisdom of a troop drawdown in the next few months.

“One perspective certainly is that with so much turmoil, how can you possibly think about drawing down at this point?” said a senior Defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

For nearly a year, senior commanders have said that political progress in Baghdad and the development of new Iraqi army units could lead to a substantial U.S. troop reduction this year. They have pointed to mid-2006 as a pivotal period, making the decisions on troop levels a telling indicator of progress.

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Defense officials said that Army Gens. John P. Abizaid and George W. Casey, the top commanders of U.S. forces in Iraq, soon would travel to Washington to advise President Bush on future troop levels. Because the moves under consideration will be critical to overall U.S. progress in Iraq this year, officials said Abizaid and Casey would brief the president in person.

“The president wants to hear it directly from the commanders, so he can get the straight scoop,” the senior Defense official said.

The immediate question is whether the White House should cancel the expected deployments of a handful of combat units, a decision that would mean a midsummer reduction in the overall U.S. military presence in Iraq by thousands of troops.

Commanders must decide on force levels several months in advance of actual deployments, because of the time needed to ship military equipment and enable troops to prepare for an extended combat tour.

Defense officials said they were still optimistic that reductions could take place. One positive development they cited from the past week’s violence was that Iraqi army units had been largely successful in keeping the ethnic strife from escalating into a full-blown civil war.

Both Abizaid and Casey have argued in the past that a U.S. troop reduction would help reduce the Iraqis’ dependency on American forces. Delaying a U.S. withdrawal, some argue, might prevent Iraqi units from taking charge of security throughout the country.

“If you keep bringing in American forces, the Iraqis are never going to step up to the plate,” said a second Defense official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

At the same time, U.S. officials are concerned that armed sectarian militias are gaining power inside Iraq, and that many Iraqi police units are more loyal to ethnic and religious leaders than to the national government. Even as the capability of the Iraqi army grows, the influence of the militias could threaten the army’s ability to keep Iraq from sliding into further ethnic conflict.

Several U.S. combat brigades, including units of the Army’s 1st, 2nd and 25th Infantry Divisions, are making final preparations for deployment to Iraq this summer. Abizaid and Casey could recommend that these deployments be canceled to reduce the overall U.S. troop presence in the country.

Also under discussion is the future of one brigade of the Army’s 1st Armored Division, currently stationed in the Kuwaiti desert as a “ready force” that could move into Iraq if the security situation worsened. Military planners had originally intended to pull the brigade out of Kuwait by the summer, but the unit’s deployment could be extended because of the recent violence in Iraq.

With the Iraq war likely to be one of the key issues in November’s midterm elections, lawmakers are increasing pressure on the administration to show progress by cutting the number of U.S. troops stationed in the country. But Bush has long insisted that decisions about troop levels in Iraq will be based solely on the recommendations of his generals, rather than on any political calculations.

Citing progress in training Iraqi soldiers and police units, Bush said during his State of the Union address in January that “we should be able to further decrease our troop levels -- but those decisions will be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington, D.C.”

The U.S. military presence in Iraq has already been cut from the 155,000 troops the Pentagon assigned late last year to provide security for parliamentary elections. There are about 130,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, and Pentagon officials have hoped to bring the number down to approximately 100,000 by year’s end.

On Sunday, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” White House national security advisor Stephen Hadley said it was unclear whether the recent violence would dim the Bush administration’s hopes for a continued troop reduction.

Some outside analysts say the discussion in Washington of a troop drawdown has only emboldened insurgents, leading them to declare victory on jihadist websites and step up their attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops.

“The more we talk about withdrawals, the more insurgents assert themselves,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and U.S. advisor in Iraq, now at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. “Perhaps now is not the time to be bringing troops home.”


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