The U.S. military's internal debate over how fast to reduce its force in Iraq has intensified in recent weeks as commanders in Baghdad resist suggestions from Pentagon officials for a quicker drawdown.
Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day military commander in Iraq, said he was worried that significant improvements in security conditions would sway policymakers to move too quickly to pull out troops next year.
"The most important thing to me is we cannot lose what we have gained," Odierno said in an interview last week with The Times after he toured Nahrawan, a predominantly Shiite city of about 100,000 northeast of Baghdad with a market that is now showing signs of life. "We won't do that."
Some Pentagon officials believe a cut from 166,000 troops in Iraq to about 100,000 or fewer is necessary to relieve strain on the Army worldwide. Other military officials contend that a smaller force here would make the issue of the Iraq war less urgent, and that the next administration could therefore be less likely to force a withdrawal of all remaining troops.
Similar concerns have been raised by Pentagon officials about the Marine Corps, which has also had repeated deployments to Iraq, though the strain on the Marines has been less intense than on the Army.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has said he hopes to have a reduced force of about 100,000 troops in Iraq by the end of 2008, arrived here Wednesday to discuss U.S. progress with top American commanders.
In the last few months, the civilian death toll, as reported by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government, has declined, as has the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq. The 37 American dead in November was the lowest monthly level since early last year. Both the Pentagon and U.S. commanders in Iraq believe that the improved situation is a result of this year's American troop buildup, as well as a retooled counterinsurgency strategy.
But military officials are not ready to assert that the improved security is guaranteed to last. And the Iraqi government has failed to capitalize on the uneasy peace and approve legislation that U.S. officials say could help reconcile Iraq's feuding sectarian factions.
Before Gates' address Wednesday, a car bomb exploded in Baghdad, killing at least 14 people. The bombing was the most lethal in the capital since September and disrupted the fragile peace in the Karada district, an upscale Shiite Muslim neighborhood. It also underscored the worries of military commanders in Iraq that the improving security situation could fall apart if U.S. forces were withdrawn too quickly.
In the interview, Odierno warned against making a sharp cut without ensuring that Iraqi institutions are strong enough to handle security and governance on their own. He said drawdown decisions should be left to the overall commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus. Military officials in Baghdad believe the stress on the Army and the Marine Corps should not influence the decisions on how many troops to keep in Iraq.
Otherwise, Odierno said, the United States could see a repeat of last year's staged withdrawals, which came even as violence escalated in Iraq.
In September, Petraeus announced a plan to return the U.S. force to roughly the size it was before the buildup began in January. Under that scenario, five brigades would be withdrawn by July, cutting the force to 15 brigades, or about 130,000 troops.
"The issue becomes the next step after July," Odierno said. "You've got to allow Gen. Petraeus to look at the conditions and make a decision to go further down. I'm worried that if we try to do it too quickly and we claim victory, we will move backwards."
Military officials in Baghdad are worried that Pentagon officials, focused on the stress that a force of 130,000 will continue to place on the Army and the Marine Corps, will be more likely to see the Iraq glass as half full in March, when decisions on further cuts are due.
Army Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, Odierno's chief of staff, said the military leadership in Washington has consistently urged drawdowns to relieve stress on U.S. ground forces. Longer deployments in Iraq with shorter home leaves as well as concerns that the military would be short-handed if another conflict were to break out elsewhere are taking their toll on morale.
He said pressure for a drawdown may also come from the American public, whose support for the war has steadily dwindled and who may see the recent security improvements as an opportunity for larger withdrawals. Military officials in Baghdad are very conscious of the influence of the forthcoming presidential election and the effects of U.S. politics on war policy.
"We're very comfortable getting back to where we were when we got here," said Anderson, referring to the troop levels of 15 brigades prior to the buildup. "The question will be: Can we go below there? Is there a race to 10? That's going to be a compelling argument for a lot of reasons."
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the chief of staff of the Army, has repeatedly warned about the stress on his troops and did so again Tuesday at a speech at the Brookings Institution. "We are deploying at unsustainable rates," he said, noting that the current extended 15-month tours place great hardship on soldiers and their families.
Casey said the Army was not yet a "hollow force," a term used after the Vietnam War to describe the loss of mid-grade officers and noncommissioned officers.
"There's a thin red line out there that you don't know when you cross it until after you've crossed it," he said. "We are now in a position of having to sustain an all-volunteer force in a protracted confrontation for the first time since the Revolutionary War, and so we are in uncharted territory."
Like the Army, the Marine Corps is also worried about the effect that the high demand for troops in Iraq is having on their force. Gen. James T. Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps, said Wednesday in Washington that Gates had rejected the Corps' proposal to pull its troops out of Iraq's Anbar province and instead take over the mission in Afghanistan. The proposal was refused, in part, because commanders in Iraq want to avoid a sharp reduction in troop levels.
The Marines saw the mission shift in part as a way to reduce the demands on their force overseas, replacing 26,000 Marines in Iraq with just 15,000 in Afghanistan. "That would be sort of the panacea for us," Conway said.
Under the current plan for Iraq, the first brigade to withdraw, the Army's 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, began pulling out last month and should be done by mid-December.
Although Petraeus said in September that there would be about 45 days between the withdrawal of each Army brigade, commanders in Iraq currently plan on waiting more than two months before pulling out the next one.
Some officials in Washington, who have pushed to withdraw from Iraq at a pace of about a brigade a month, have complained that there is too much time between withdrawals.
But a senior Pentagon official said the speed of subsequent drawdowns would increase. "The plan is the time decreases between the second and third, third and fourth, fourth and fifth," the senior official said.
The official, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity because no final decisions on the pace of withdrawals, or further troop cuts, had been made.
The senior official said there was an "art" to setting the pace of the pullouts. "You want to draw down as fast as you can for reasons that make all the sense in the world," said the official. "But not so fast you precipitate a calamity."
Privately and publicly, top military officers in Washington emphasize their agreement with Odierno and Petraeus that any drawdown must be based on the security situation in Iraq. "The better the news gets, the slower I want to be at predicting what that means," said a senior military official in Washington.
But that go-slow message is also tempered by the acknowledgment that if conditions continue to improve into 2008, the military will have the ability to make larger and quicker cuts. "It honestly depends on what is going on on the ground," the official said. "Clearly if the security gets better, the more headroom you have, the more options you have. If security goes south, it gets pretty constricted in terms of options."
Spiegel reported from Iraq and Barnes from Washington.