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Drawdown total could be overstated

Bush and Petraeus have not said exactly how many forces will leave Iraq. Support troops may remain.

September 14, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House and Pentagon said Thursday that U.S. force reductions in Iraq may not amount to the widely reported figure of 30,000 troops.

In public remarks, both President Bush and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, have avoided placing an exact number on the size of their proposed drawdown. Instead, both have talked about withdrawing five Army brigades and smaller Marine units that composed the troop buildup that began in February.

The increase consists of 21,500 combat troops along with approximately 8,500 support troops, including an aviation brigade, military police and other specialties. Petraeus told Congress this week he was recommending a gradual withdrawal of troops that were part of the buildup, returning to pre-increase levels by July. As a result, it was reported that about 30,000 troops would be withdrawn.

However, Pentagon and White House officials cast doubt Thursday on how many actually would be going home. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that the withdrawal would involve "at least 21,500" troops.

Pentagon officials said some of the 8,500 support troops sent to Iraq as part of the buildup may remain. Military commanders in Iraq may want to keep some of those support units, particularly the extra military police officers or the helicopter units.

When Bush announced the troop "surge" in January, White House officials said 21,500 additional combat troops would be sent, including five brigades of 3,500 soldiers, and two battalions of about 2,000 Marines.

Those forces were added to the roughly 132,000 troops in Iraq at the start of the year.

On Monday, Petraeus said he recommended the Marine battalions and Army brigades be redeployed "without replacement." The drawdown, Petraeus said, would return the force to "pre-surge levels of 15 brigade combat teams by mid-July 2008."

But Petraeus also said the withdrawals would begin with the removal of the Marine Expeditionary Unit, a reserve force of about 2,200 Marines that has frequently been brought in to Iraq at various times.

Including that unit, which was due to leave anyway, the units identified by Petraeus for withdrawal total about 23,700.

Although the "baseline" post-buildup troop level is about 162,000, Pentagon officials said that the current level in Iraq was 169,000, because of scheduled troop rotations that resulted in fluctuating numbers.

Assuming all of the combat forces identified by Petraeus are removed, troop levels will fall to about 138,300 by July.

But in the course of his testimony on Tuesday, Petraeus took issue with the assumption he was drawing down to 130,000, suggesting that there may be even fewer troops in Iraq by July.

"What I want to do is to get as low as we can," Petraeus said.

When questioned by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Petraeus said he asked for a study to consider combining headquarters units and trimming logistics units.

"Wherever we can," he said, "we want to send folks home and not keep them over in Iraq."


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