Intent on demonstrating progress in Iraq, the top U.S. general there is expected by Bush administration officials to recommend removing American troops soon from several areas where commanders believe security has improved, possibly including Al Anbar province.
According to the officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus is expected to propose the partial pullback in his September status report to Congress, when both the war’s critics and supporters plan to reassess its course. Administration officials who support the current troop levels hope Petraeus’ recommendations will persuade Congress to reject pressure for a major U.S. withdrawal.
The expected recommendation would authorize U.S. commanders to withdraw troops from places that have become less violent and turn over security responsibilities to Iraqi forces.
But it does not necessarily follow that Petraeus would call for reducing the overall number of troops in the country. Instead, he could move them to another hot spot, or use them to create a reserve force to counter any rise in violence.
“That is the form of the recommendation we are anticipating him to come back with,” a senior administration official said. But referring to the redeployment options, the official added, “I just don’t know which of those categories he is going to be in.”
Petraeus has not told the White House where he might recommend reductions. But military commanders have indicated in recent briefings that Nineveh province in northern Iraq and its capital, Mosul, like Al Anbar in the west, could be an area from which it might be suitable for the U.S. to withdraw.
American commanders have found that pulling out too soon and leaving pacified areas to unprepared Iraqi troops can lead to a resurgence of militant activity. In the north, where U.S. officials have reduced the number of combat troops, devastating bomb attacks Tuesday killed at least 175 people.
Tall Afar, a town about 40 miles west of Mosul that had been cited by President Bush as a key U.S. success, has seen a rise in violence since the spring after a period of stability.
Petraeus has been keeping a “close hold” on the recommendations he intends to deliver next month, according to a senior military officer in Baghdad. But the officer said Petraeus wanted to ensure that any moves he made did not cause violence to flare up again.
“He doesn’t want to lose the gains we have made,” said the military officer who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because the report is still being developed.
Some officials say they expect Petraeus to push for maintaining the current force level for at least six additional months to build upon security improvements in Baghdad.
U.S. force levels reached nearly 162,000 this month, an increase of about 30,000 from the beginning of the year, when the American military’s troop buildup began.
Another Defense official, who has been part of Iraq planning but skeptical of the troop increase, said moving forces out of Al Anbar could make sense to the White House, because doing so would enable the administration to show that improved security translates into a reduction in troops.
Cutting the number of troops in Al Anbar would also eliminate the need to request more forces to secure areas around Baghdad, where the U.S. has been focusing much of its military effort.
“If the Marines are having so much success in Al Anbar, maybe we redeploy them to some other hot spot,” said the Defense official. Administration officials have cited improved ties with Sunni Arab leaders in Al Anbar with helping reduce violence and curb the power of the insurgents.
Not all military commanders favor reducing the number of troops in more stable areas. In a news conference last month, Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, the commander of U.S. forces in Al Anbar, cautioned against cutting back forces there too quickly.
Gaskin argued that the added forces had allowed the Marines to eliminate havens used by the insurgent group that calls itself Al Qaeda in Iraq.
A “persistent presence” of U.S. forces, he said, would help give Iraqi security forces more experience and confidence, and the ability to keep militants out.
“It takes time to gain experience,” he said. “I see that experience happening every day, but I don’t see it happening overnight. I believe it’s another couple of years in order to get them to do that -- and that’s not a political answer, that’s a military answer.”
But division and brigade commanders in other parts of Iraq have said they anticipate recommending further reductions in the months to come. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. “Randy” Mixon, the American division commander for northern Iraq, said last month that he expected to cut the number of troops in his area, but emphasized that reductions should be made slowly.
The Army 1st Cavalry Division’s 4th Brigade has moved soldiers out of combat roles in Mosul and other cities, and into assignments such as full-time advisors with Iraqi units.
Col. Stephen M. Twitty, the brigade commander, said in an interview before the bombings Tuesday that the U.S. combat force in Mosul had been reduced from the size of a division, or nearly 20,000, to that of a battalion, typically about 1,000.
The senior officer in Baghdad said the military was still debating whether Petraeus should make his detailed strategy recommendations to Congress in an open or closed session.
The officer said that though Petraeus would discuss his broad recommendation for adjusting operations, he would avoid detailed public discussion of where he intended to reposition specific brigades.
The officer said Petraeus would not go deeply into detail in an open session.
“The future plan, how he thinks we can move forward, you really do not want to broadcast that to the world,” he said.
Administration and military officials acknowledge that the September report will not show any significant progress on the political benchmarks laid out by Congress. How to deal in the report with the lack of national reconciliation between Iraq’s warring sects has created some tension within the White House.
Despite Bush’s repeated statements that the report will reflect evaluations by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, administration officials said it would actually be written by the White House, with inputs from officials throughout the government.
And though Petraeus and Crocker will present their recommendations on Capitol Hill, legislation passed by Congress leaves it to the president to decide how to interpret the report’s data.
The senior administration official said the process had created “uncomfortable positions” for the White House because of debates over what constitutes “satisfactory progress.”
During internal White House discussion of a July interim report, some officials urged the administration to claim progress in policy areas such as legislation to divvy up Iraq’s oil revenue, even though no final agreement had been reached. Others argued that such assertions would be disingenuous.
“There were some in the drafting of the report that said, ‘Well, we can claim progress,’ ” the administration official said. “There were others who said: ‘Wait a second. Sure we can claim progress, but it’s not credible to . . . just neglect the fact that it’s had no effect on the ground.’ ”
The Defense official skeptical of the troop buildup said he expected Petraeus to emphasize military accomplishments, including improving security in Baghdad neighborhoods and a slight reduction in the number of suicide bomb attacks. But the official said he did not believe such security improvements would translate into political progress or improvements in the daily lives of most Iraqis.
“Who cares how many neighborhoods of Baghdad are secured?” the official said. “Let’s talk about the rest of the country: How come they have electricity twice a day, how come there is no running water?”