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Georgian conflict could affect U.S. plans in Iraq

CONFLICT IN CAUCASUS: RUSSIA UNRELENTING; U.S.-LED
FORCES IN IRAQ SHORT-HANDED

Troop reductions may be slowed as Georgia's own forces go home.

August 15, 2008|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, is being forced to grapple with one of the unexpected byproducts of the conflict in Georgia: His plan to withdraw American forces in Iraq was predicated on all partner nations keeping their troop levels intact.

With nearly 2,000 Georgian troops returning home in the midst of the crisis there, the coalition has lost what one senior military official called one of the largest and most capable contributions to the Iraq effort. As a result, the official said, Petraeus is now assessing whether he will have to change his plans, including possibly delaying the return home of some U.S. forces this year.

"One of the assumptions for the future in Iraq was that coalition contributions would remain relatively stable," said the senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Iraq troop deployments publicly. "This is the third-largest contingent, and a very capable contingent. This changes the calculus."

A military officer in Baghdad cautioned that Petraeus had not completed his assessment on force reductions when the Georgians left, and added that U.S. and Iraqi forces had so far been able to take over the vacated positions.

But another military official familiar with Iraq planning said Georgian troops had been central to a new push to block weapons shipments coming across the border from Iran into southeastern Iraq, setting up a base in the city of Kut and patrolling nearby border regions.

"You can't lose the Georgian component without some impact," said the military official, who also requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss Iraq troop deployments publicly. "If you had to assess the 30 countries in Iraq as a coalition force, Georgia was among the top tier, both in number and capabilities."

Petraeus' 45-day assessment period began at the end of last month when the last of the five U.S. brigades deployed in the troop buildup last year departed from Iraq. At the end of the assessment, he is to deliver his recommendation on whether U.S. troop drawdowns can resume in the fall. Over the course of this year, American force levels have gone from a peak of about 170,000 to approximately 140,000, just above pre-buildup levels.

The sharp reduction in violence in Iraq in recent months has led many at the Pentagon to believe that Petraeus will call for additional troop reductions by the end of the year. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said after a visit to Iraq in July that he expected to be able to recommend a resumption of withdrawals next month.

The rising violence in Afghanistan has also put pressure on military planners to withdraw troops from Iraq, since significant increases in Afghan forces cannot occur without them. According to Pentagon officials, Mullen's staff is weighing a recommendation to send the next unit scheduled to deploy to Iraq -- the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 4th Infantry Division -- to Afghanistan instead, perhaps as early as December.

One of the military officials said that although the Georgian contingent was the size of about half a U.S. brigade, it was unlikely that its departure would derail plans to send the U.S. brigade to Afghanistan.

But the official said that the Georgian mission along the border had begun to have some impact and that the withdrawal schedule of smaller U.S. units could be affected, because it is unlikely another allied military would take up the task.

In addition to the border mission, Georgian troops were responsible for providing security to the U.N. mission in Iraq.

"They were beginning to establish some real capability along the border to help ramp up [Iraqi security forces] and slow down the Iranian flows of illegal arms across the border," the official said.

The departure of the Georgians and the continued withdrawal of British and Polish troops has drastically reduced the number of non-U.S. foreign troops available to Petraeus. Britain maintains 4,100 troops in Iraq, the largest contingent after the U.S., but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown outlined a plan last month that would resume withdrawals over the next year to where few would remain in southern Iraq.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.

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