WASHINGTON — A key Republican senator who was an early advocate of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq predicted Sunday that the current force could fall to about 100,000 by the end of the year.
The forecast by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a key advocate of the "surge" strategy that saw 28,500 additional troops sent to Iraq last year, is sharply lower than recent predictions by military officials.
"We will be somewhere around 100,000 troops, and most of the fighting will be done by Iraqis with us in overwatch," said Graham, who traveled to Iraq last week with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
Last year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said it was his goal to draw down to 100,000 troops by the end of 2008. But in recent weeks military officers have said such a sharp cut is now unlikely because of a recommendation expected by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to temporarily halt further troop withdrawals for the summer months after those who participated in last year's buildup are pulled out.
Administration officials have said they expect U.S. troop levels in Iraq to hold at about 140,000 from July until October, when Iraqi officials hope to hold provincial elections.
Outside military experts have predicted further cuts of at most 10,000 troops in the final months of 2008 because the Pentagon has been reluctant to remove more than a brigade a month, and Petraeus has deemed even that pace as too quick.
Even if the U.S. military draws down its forces to 100,000 by the end of this year, Graham suggested Sunday during his appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" that quicker withdrawals next year proposed by Democratic presidential candidates without regard for security conditions would be a "complete disaster."
"We've finally got it right," said Graham, who also serves on the Armed Services Committee. "By adding additional combat power, we've given the Iraqis a chance to turn their country around."