U.S. considers quickening the pace of pullout from Iraq
By Steven Lee Myers
New York Times
Article Launched: 07/13/2008 01:36:21 AM PDT

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq beginning in September, according to administration and military officials, raising the prospect of a far more ambitious plan than expected only months ago.

Such a withdrawal would be a striking reversal from the nadir of the war in 2006 and 2007.

One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional U.S. forces in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other fighters have intensified their insurgency and inflicted a growing number of casualties on Afghans and U.S.-led forces there.

More U.S. and allied troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May and June, a trend that has continued this month.

Although no decision has been made, by the time President Bush leaves office Jan. 20, at least one and as many as three of the 15 combat brigades now in Iraq could be withdrawn or at least scheduled for withdrawal, the officials said.

Dual pressures

The desire to move more quickly reflects the view of many in the Pentagon who want to ease the strain on the military but also to free more soldiers for Afghanistan and potentially other missions.

"As the Iraqi security forces get stronger and get better, then we will be able to continue drawing down our troops in the future," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in Fort Lewis, Wash., on Tuesday. "And I think that this transition of control

and of responsibility, primary responsibility for security is a process that's already well under way and based on everything that I'm hearing will be able to continue."

Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, already has begun the review of security and troop levels. He and Bush promised in April that such a review would take place. Petraeus is expected to be more cautious than some policy-makers in the administration and at the Pentagon might like.

One senior administration official cautioned that the president, who will have the final say, would be reluctant to endorse deep or rapid reductions if they jeopardized his goal of establishing a stable and democratic government in Baghdad.

Still, there is broad consensus in Washington and Baghdad that more U.S. forces now can leave Iraq and that more are needed in Afghanistan.

"There hasn't really been any discussion of numbers, and it's definitely based on conditions on the ground," a military officer in Baghdad said. Conditions, he went on, "are a lot more favorable than in December or April or even two months ago."

Command structure

Petraeus, who will step down as commander in Iraq in September, also will soon take over as the commander of the U.S. Central Command. In that position, he will oversee U.S. forces and operations throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has signaled that commanders wanted additional soldiers in Afghanistan - as many as 10,000 more than the 32,000 there now - but with two wars straining the Army and Marines, officials have struggled to produce the extra forces.

A reduction of combat brigades in Iraq would free up additional soldiers who could instead be sent to Afghanistan, though officials said that no additional forces would go until next year, when fighting is expected to intensify with the arrival of spring.

Gates has extended the deployment of a force of 3,200 Marines in southern Afghanistan by one month, essentially until winter arrives and closes many of the country's mountain passes and remote villages.

"We have clearly seen an increase in violence in Afghanistan," Gates said at Fort Lewis. "At the same time, we've seen a reduction in violence and casualties in Iraq. And I think it's just part of our commitment to ensure that we have the resources available to be successful in Afghanistan over the long haul."