WASHINGTON — U.S. military commanders in Iraq have outlined troop reduction plans that remain at odds with President-elect Barack Obama's preferences, but believe they may be able to reconcile the two goals.
Senior military leaders briefing Obama this week described a new military plan for troop withdrawals, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said Thursday. But the commanders suggested a more gradual reduction than Obama's proposal for a withdrawal of combat troops within 16 months.
The two plans could be squared by moving to reclassify, or "re-mission," U.S. troops still in Iraq after 16 months to change combat forces to training units or residual forces, according to military officials.
Already, military officials have reassigned combat infantry soldiers and Marines to training jobs. Combat forces still in Iraq after May 2010 would probably be needed more for training missions in any case, officials have said.
Obama's transition team and the Pentagon have moved closer on the question of troop levels since the election, and each side has carved out room to maneuver.
Although Obama has proposed removing all combat troops in 16 months, he has proposed a residual force after May 2010. Advisors have said that residual force could consist of as many as 50,000 troops.
Obama also has promised to consider the advice of commanders and has said that the pace of the withdrawal must not endanger the security of U.S. troops.
It was not clear under the newest military proposal, crafted by Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, when military leaders would withdraw the last of U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
However, the latest proposal would remove more troops in 2009 than commanders have previously outlined, officials said.
Odierno and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, are concerned about having enough forces in Iraq to ensure security surrounding the country's next national elections in the fall of 2009.
Under Odierno's plan, all U.S. forces would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, according to Pentagon officials. In the new security agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, Washington has promised to withdraw all of its forces from Iraq by then.
"The Status of Forces Agreement does not allow a long-term presence, so we have to draw down," said a senior Pentagon official.
Odierno presented his plans to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Saturday at a meeting in Iraq. On Monday, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented those plans to Obama and his national security team at a meeting in Chicago.
"The secretary asked that Chairman Mullen brief the Obama national security team on the current thinking about the way ahead in Iraq," Morrell said, confirming the new military proposal to Obama's team. "None of these meetings, conversations has been decisional, and ultimately this will be up to the president-elect, to the new commander in chief, to determine the direction he wishes to go in Iraq."
After a high point of about 170,000 troops in 2007, there still are 143,000 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
In an interview Wednesday on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show," Gates said U.S. troops could remain in Iraq past 2011 if Iraqis chose to renegotiate the security agreement.
"My guess is that you are looking at perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops, but clearly in a very different role than we have played in the last five years," Gates told Rose.