Although the role of Defense Department civilian leaders has been highly controversial since the start of the Iraq war, strains between ground commanders and the Pentagon's military brass have been comparatively rare. Previous U.S. commanders in Iraq, such as Petraeus' predecessor, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., emphasized low force levels, in part to ensure the overall health of the Army.
Pace has gained a reputation as a consensus builder who is loath to confront civilian leaders on war strategy. With his term nearly up, he is facing his last opportunity to affect the war effort and is stepping up the involvement of the Joint Chiefs in planning for Iraq.
Pace has assigned a handpicked group of high-ranking Iraq combat veterans, known as his "council of colonels," to help formulate the Pentagon military leadership's assessment of current strategy, according to military officials.
Pace created the council last year. Although the chiefs' specific recommendations to Bush were pushed aside then in favor of the troop buildup ordered in January, Pace has asked the council to look at various military problems since then. The process has been credited with reinvigorating the relevance of the Joint Chiefs.
Membership on the council has shifted since last year, and Pentagon officials say Pace now has a fresh group, convened this summer, examining potential changes to Iraq strategy. Past council members have included Army Col. Peter R. Mansoor, who is now Petraeus' executive officer in Baghdad. Officials would not identify the officers now on Pace's panel.
Senior military officers in Washington believe that by next year, the Iraqi military will be able to shoulder more of the burden now carried by U.S. forces, according to defense officials.
Before the 2006 Samarra mosque bombing touched off cycles of sectarian violence, military officials believed they were on the path to reducing U.S. forces in Iraq to 10 brigades. Officers in the Pentagon now believe advances in the Iraqi army mean that U.S. and coalition forces may be once again on that path.
"The 25-cent question is, 'What is the size of the force?' To say there will be a smaller force is not accurate. There will be a smaller coalition force, but not necessarily a smaller overall force," said a senior military officer. "The Iraqi security forces are making progress."
The Joint Chiefs have become increasingly vocal about the need to keep Army and Marine forces at home longer between deployments so the military can train for other challenges besides the counterinsurgency fight in Iraq.
"Today's Army is out of balance," Casey said last week in a speech at the National Press Club. "We're consumed with meeting the current demands, and we're unable to provide ready forces as rapidly as we would like for other contingencies."