Delivering a much-anticipated assessment of the military buildup in Iraq, America's top commander there, citing improvements in security, recommended Monday that the U.S. start withdrawing some troops later this month but not return to pre-"surge" levels until next summer at the earliest.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said he would send home a force of about 2,200 Marines this month, and he recommended that an Army brigade of about 3,500 return home in December. But Petraeus advised keeping the remainder of the buildup forces -- four brigades and two Marine battalions -- in Iraq through July.
At that point, force levels would drop to the pre-buildup figure, about 130,000.
Since the buildup was announced in January, President Bush has urged Americans to give it time to work. Petraeus' report, he said, will be a key factor in setting a future course for the war.
Much of the daylong testimony before two House committees, which was televised live, had been previewed in recent days. But there were unexpected elements. Potentially most significant was the general's announcement that he would decide by March when troop levels could drop below 130,000 -- effectively setting a new deadline for the military, Congress and the Bush administration in the debate over the war's future.
The "very substantial withdrawal" Petraeus outlined Monday would keep the buildup in place for as long as possible without extending the tours of soldiers beyond the current limit of 15 months: Taking into account those tour limits, which were increased to their current level earlier this year, those additional troops would have had to come home anyway by the end of August. In essence, Petraeus was arguing Monday for a continuation of the buildup until virtually no more Army and Marine units were available.
"The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met," Petraeus said at the beginning of his testimony. "In recent months, in the face of tough enemies and the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena."
Petraeus said that by bringing home some forces this year -- a move called for by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), an important moderate voice -- he was starting the drawdown earlier than previously planned. However, his proposal also would slow the removal of brigades, ending the buildup only about a month earlier than was forecast by Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day military commander.
Beginning in December, Petraeus proposes to withdraw one brigade every 45 days.
Even though Petraeus said the buildup had had positive results, he and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told lawmakers that the country's political climate was frustrating and that "success" would require a great deal of time.
Under Petraeus' plan, the military would decide in March when to implement further cuts in the U.S. force, to 10 to 12 brigades. Such a cut would bring U.S. forces down to about 100,000 troops, a level favored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Under questioning, Petraeus said the Joint Chiefs had supported his recommendations for drawing down the buildup forces.
The March deadline is bound to rekindle debate over the timing of troop reductions. Democrats have charged that the Bush administration has been delaying key decisions to buy time.
Petraeus said: "I do not believe it is reasonable to have an adequate appreciation for the pace of further reductions and mission adjustments beyond the summer of 2008 until about mid-March of next year."
In another new feature of U.S. strategy, Petraeus outlined a rough shift in the U.S. mission in Iraq over time. U.S. forces now are "in the lead" in combat operations. Eventually, Petraeus hopes to move them into a position of "overwatch" -- U.S. supervision of Iraqi tactics, operations and strategies -- as opposed to combat.
Petraeus suggested that the United States would continue its current counterinsurgency strategy for some time, but that Iraqi security forces would gradually take more responsibility for leading the operations.
Petraeus displayed a chart indicating a series of possible troop reductions in coming years.
The chart showed that as U.S. combat forces were reduced, the mission would begin to shift from U.S.-led counterinsurgency operations to emphasis on partnering with Iraqis. Eventually, the U.S. would be solely focused on watching over Iraqi forces and leaders.
Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) asked Petraeus about the troop cuts implied by the graphic and how long that smaller force, of perhaps 50,000 troops, might remain in Iraq. Petraeus said he did not know how long the force would remain, nor when the next cuts would be made.
"There is every intention and recognition that forces will continued to be reduced after the mid-July time frame," Petraeus said.