Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has told President Bush that he wants to maintain heightened troop levels in Iraq well into next year to reduce the risk of military setbacks, but could accept the pullback of an initial brigade beginning in January, according to senior administration and military officials.
Petraeus’ view is considered overly cautious by some other senior military officials and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, officials said. But they said it reflected his concern that the security gains made so far in Baghdad, Anbar province and other areas were fragile and easily reversed.
Beyond the gesture of pulling back one brigade, officials who have been involved in the preparation of Petraeus’ congressional testimony to be delivered next week say he will discuss the possibility of far deeper withdrawals beyond January that, over a number of months, could bring American force levels down to about 130,000 troops, where they stood at the beginning of 2007. But they said it was unclear how specific the general would be in publicly discussing the timing of such pullbacks, and they said that even in internal administration deliberations he had described a number of conditions that must be met before a reduction.
White House officials said Thursday night that Bush had yet to make any final decisions about the recommendations that he would accept. But Petraeus’ apparent agreement to a small withdrawal beginning early next year could fit into a narrow consensus that is beginning to emerge on Capitol Hill. Many Republicans and Democrats agree that some troop withdrawal should begin soon, though major disagreements remain about how quick and deep the subsequent withdrawals should be.
Petraeus “is worried about risk, and all things being equal he’d like to keep as much as he could for as long as he could,” a senior military officer said. Petraeus returned unannounced to Washington late on Tuesday, officials said, to prepare for the testimony he will deliver beginning Monday. It will be paired with a political assessment of the Maliki government delivered by Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
Several officials involved in internal discussions about the testimony said that both Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the ground commander in Iraq, were worried about signing on to a timetable that would commit them to steep withdrawals in the spring. In recent weeks, the ground commanders have said they need the option to halt any pullback if security deteriorated.
With more than 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the withdrawal in January of one brigade, roughly 3,500 to 4,500 troops, would not amount to a large drain on Petraeus’ forces. Bush has indicated to aides that he will be likely to embrace the outlines of Petraeus’ recommendations, after declaring publicly that he will rely for advice on his ground commanders, rather than bowing to political pressure from those in Congress who are pushing for a speedier withdrawal.