WASHINGTON — The top U.S. commander in Iraq has drawn up plans that could lead to sharp reductions in American forces there as early as September and cut the number of combat brigades by nearly two-thirds by late 2007.
Army Gen. George W. Casey presented his plan to Pentagon leaders and President Bush in confidential briefings during a visit to Washington last week, an administration official said. Other officials emphasized that no final decision had been taken on troop levels, but said that the outline would probably serve as the basis for future planning.
"The recent conversations that have taken place are all designed to formulate our thinking in concert with the new Iraqi government," said a White House official, who requested anonymity because the plan remained classified.
The official added, however, that the administration hoped the plan would become more concrete once discussions on troop levels are held with new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Iraq's national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, has publicly embraced a similar timetable.
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Saturday that although Casey had expressed optimism about the formation of the new Iraqi government and the progress made by Iraqi security forces, he had also warned that major hurdles remained, including the remnants of Abu Musab Zarqawi's Al Qaeda-linked terrorist network and the militias that have carried out increasingly violent attacks on rival sects.
Casey's troop reduction plan "is certainly the most optimistic possibility," said one military official who spoke with the general last week. "There are less optimistic briefings as well. This is the 'if everything goes the way we want to' slide."
The plan would allow Casey "to engage with the new Maliki government, so it can go from a notional concept to a practical plan of security implementation over the next two years," the White House official said.
Under the outline, two combat brigades that are scheduled to return from Iraq in September would not be replaced, reducing the number of brigades in the country to 12. By the end of the year, the Pentagon might reduce that by as many as two more brigades, an official said.
There are 126,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; the two brigades that would not be replaced in September -- the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division and the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division -- each have about 3,500 soldiers.
Under Casey's plan, the number of combat brigades could shrink to seven or eight by the middle of next year, and to five or six by the end of 2007. One military official said the reductions could leave the U.S. with 40,000 to 50,000 troops in the country by the end of next year, far below any previous estimates.
The remaining combat forces would be composed largely of attack helicopters, armored units acting as quick response forces to back up Iraqi security forces, and forward controllers to call in Air Force strikes, a military official said.
Although Bush has said troop levels would be dictated by the security situation in Iraq and the maturity of Iraqi forces, a move to reduce forces will probably have significant domestic political reverberations as well.
The first of the drawdowns would not only come just weeks before November's midterm congressional elections, in which Republicans are facing the prospect of significant losses, due in part to the war's growing unpopularity. But the plan also comes as some Democrats have been pushing the Bush administration to come up with a timetable for withdrawal.
Last week, Congress debated two Democratic proposals that called for Bush to begin a troop drawdown, resolutions that divided the party. Public acknowledgment of the Casey plan by administration officials could leave the Democratic Party's leaders in an even more awkward position, having backed a withdrawal plan already embraced by the White House -- in effect leaving the party with no Iraq policy distinct from the administration's as the parties head into the midterm elections.
Military officials cautioned that Casey's proposal was contingent on U.S. forces being able to stabilize the Iraqi security situation over the next 12 months and the Iraqi government establishing its authority over the course of the following year.
At a news conference last week -- ahead of his Friday meeting, which included Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, to discuss the plan -- Casey said U.S. troop levels have dropped to 126,000 from about 138,000 in recent months.
"That's 12,000; whether that's a very substantial amount, I'll leave to your judgment," Casey said. "I think there will be continued gradual reductions here as the Iraqis take on a larger and larger role. It'll run over the course of the next year."
Casey emphasized that he had not discussed U.S. force levels with the new Iraqi government, and Rumsfeld said no decisions would be made on troop numbers until those talks were held.