|As Iraqis walked past, a US soldier stood guard over the site where an IED had detonated in western Baqubah, on Sunday. Iraq is one of the top issues in the US presidential campaign. (ali yussef/AFP/Getty Images)|
Bush thought likely to reduce US forces in Iraq by year's end
Further troop cuts possible for 2009
BAGHDAD - Iraq's security has improved so much, even as US troop levels have dropped, that President Bush seems likely to order thousands more soldiers home by year's end.
That was not the widespread view only three months ago when Bush announced there would be a temporary halt to troop reductions once the last of five "surge" brigades left Iraq this month. Many believed the country would remain too fragile to justify thinning American combat lines before 2009.
However, two weeks of observing US and Iraqi troops in and around Baghdad, coupled with Associated Press interviews with commanders and planners, suggest a likelihood that Bush will move to reduce the US force by perhaps another combat brigade, or roughly 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers, toward the end of the year. More cuts seem possible next year, but the scale and timing will depend on who replaces Bush in the White House.
It now looks as though Bush has more reasons to resume the drawdown than to leave the entire decision to his successor. Not all the reasons are good news: The situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan, and commanders there say they need a substantial infusion of combat power and military trainers to curb the insurgency.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the White House said that the United States and Iraq were unlikely to meet a July 31 deadline for completing a long-term security pact, but intensive negotiations were underway on an agreement that will help dictate the role of US forces after year-end, Reuters reported.
"I don't think that we'll be able to finalize this agreement by next Thursday, we're working towards it, but it might take a few more days after that," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
She said the agreement would include an "aspirational date" to transition the mission of American forces that have been in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. There are currently 148,000 American troops in Iraq.
But Perino said the pact with Iraq would not set specific dates for specific levels of US troops on the ground, according to Reuters.
Politically, the Iraqi government is asserting its wish for a speed-up in US troop withdrawals. Yesterday the chief spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the government hopes the US withdraws its combat troops by 2010. US domestic political pressures to get out of Iraq are building, too.
Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama, who met with Maliki in Baghdad yesterday, says he would get all combat forces out within 16 months of taking office. Republican John McCain is opposed to setting any timeline for withdrawals, and says troops will come home as security improves. That's what the White House says, too.
Extra reductions this year might be made by simply canceling plans to replace a combat brigade that is finishing its 15-month tour in Iraq this fall. The departing brigade's operating area most likely would be assumed by a unit nearby, spreading it thinner as has been done in numerous instances over the past year.
Fresh reductions this fall would entail some risk of losing momentum toward a stable Iraq. The Iraqi army is still weak in some areas, and the Iraqi police are a much bigger question mark.