At a Crossroads in Iraq

The Pentagon expects to begin significantly drawing down the number of U.S. forces in Iraq by the middle of next year even as it prepares “worst case” contingency plans to maintain troop levels for the next four years.

The dual time lines reflect how critical the next 10 months will be in determining the fate of the American intervention in Iraq.

With public support waning for President Bush’s handling of the war, some political analysts say most Americans may lose patience by the middle of next year if the situation doesn’t dramatically improve, which would fuel sentiment to bring the troops home. Military analysts also worry that the Pentagon could face an enlistment and manpower crisis by that time if large numbers of troops cannot be withdrawn from Iraq.

In fact, U.S. plans in Iraq are targeted precisely at mid-2006, calling for a new Iraqi constitution to have been drafted by Monday, approved by voters in October and then used to elect a new national government by December. By June, the Pentagon hopes to have Iraqi security forces trained to take over the bulk of the counterinsurgency fighting to allow a major U.S. troop withdrawal.

Needless to say, reaching all of these goals remains a difficult challenge _ beginning with the need for a new draft Iraqi constitution, which was due Monday but already has missed one deadline. On the other hand, plans for U.S. troop withdrawals do not necessarily rely on an improvement in the political or security situation, although they could be speeded up if things improve or slowed down if they don’t.

Gen. John Abizaid, overall U.S. commander in Iraq, outlined a plan last month to gradually reduce by 20,000 to 30,000 by next spring the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, with more to follow in the summer and fall. But in the near term, troop levels will rise from the current 138,000 as forces are beefed up to provide security for an expected referendum on a new Iraqi constitution in October, and elections in December.

And the Army’s top general, Peter Schoomaker, told the Associated Press over the weekend that the service is prepared for a “worst case” scenario that could keep troop levels in Iraq well over 100,000 through 2009.

Ever since Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus took responsibility for training Iraqi security forces last year, the target date for beginning a major American withdrawal has been June 2006. It is by this date that the United States expects to have 275,000 Iraqi policemen and soldiers trained and equipped and organized into effective units. There are 178,000 on the job now, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Venable.

But outside experts say the timetable also is influenced by concerns that the Army and Marine Corps are overstretched by the massive deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by political considerations, both American and Iraqi.

Bush recently has seemed to tamp down public comments by military officials that significant withdrawals should come sooner rather than later, saying that U.S. deployments will be downsized as the political and security situation in Iraq allows.

Venable denied any differences between the president and the Pentagon. “There is no daylight between them,” he said. “When the generals have talked about troop reductions, they have always stated that it is conditions-based.”

Others are not so sure.

“Some of the split we’ve seen in statements by the president and the secretary of defense is that there is internal pressure (in the Pentagon) because the people who do personnel policies realize there is a real problem looming,” said retired Marine Col. Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College.

The training of Iraqi security forces got off to a slow start, but former skeptics say great progress has been made since Petraeus has been on the job.

There were no Iraqi security forces in May 2003, and only one battalion in the Iraqi army as of June of last year, Venable said. More than 110 battalions are in the field now.

“The Iraqi security forces are now a real and hugely significant factor,” retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey said in a report last month to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. McCaffrey, drug czar during the Clinton administration, has been a critic of the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has written detailed studies of the war in Iraq, focusing on U.S. mistakes.

Upon his return from a visit to Iraq in April, Cordesman told Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations that “a lot of progress” has been made recently, and “if things go according to our hopes, we can make significant reductions in the U.S. presence by the end of 2005.”

But Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a hearing Aug. 7 that fewer than 3,000 Iraqi troops can operate without U.S. support.

Venable said that’s a distortion.

Iraqi units are rated at four levels of readiness, Venable explained. Level 1 units can plan, execute and sustain counterinsurgency operations “independent of coalition forces.” Currently only three army and police commando battalions, with 400 to 800 men apiece, fall into this category, Venable said.

Level 2 units can conduct counterinsurgency operations “with coalition enablers.” Level 3 units can fight insurgents only alongside American or British units. Level 4 units are just being formed.

There now are more than 100 Level 2 and Level 3 battalions, and they are all “in the fight,” Venable said.

The focus has been to create Iraqi light-infantry units as rapidly as possible, so it was never in the plan that there be more than a couple of Level 1 battalions at this stage, Venable said. The emphasis, he said, has been on moving Level 3 units up to Level 2, so Iraqis can take over the bulk of the fighting, with American troops providing advice and fire and logistics support _ roles they are likely to play for a long time to come.

Level 1 and Level 2 units can fight equally well, the main difference being that Level 2 units lack their own heavy weaponry or equipment.

(Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly(at)