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THE NATION

Petraeus advocates delay in troop cuts

The Iraq commander's recommendation, a shift, reflects concern about ongoing threats in the country.

September 05, 2008|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Army Gen. David H. Petraeus has recommended that President Bush postpone sharp troop cuts in Iraq until next year, delaying a large-scale shift of combat forces to Afghanistan and reflecting concerns that widespread violence could return to Iraq.

Under the recommendation, the current level of about 140,000 troops would remain in Iraq through the end of Bush's presidency in January. Then, a combat brigade of about 3,500 troops would be removed by February, a senior Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the recommendation has not been made public.

The move would represent a compromise between Petraeus and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, comprising the uniformed heads of the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. The Joint Chiefs had hoped for a sharper cut -- of up to 10,000 troops -- by the end of the year. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, had pushed to keep 140,000 troops, or 15 combat brigades and support personnel, until next June.

"It is a compromise solution," said a military official, describing internal discussions on condition of anonymity. "It is about balancing risks and requirements."

Any further changes would be decided by the next administration, military officials said.

The recommendation contrasts with Petraeus' statements before Congress in May, when he predicted an autumn troop reduction, even if a small one. The warning against deep cutbacks also comes amid a sharp debate in the presidential campaign, in which Republican John McCain has praised Bush's troop strategy and Democrat Barack Obama has said he would withdraw troops to send more forces to Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials emphasized that the recommendations have not been accepted by President Bush. But over the last 18 months, Bush has deferred to Petraeus, who has accepted the compromise. The White House said Bush is considering the advice.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, declined to discuss the specifics of the recommendation but said it bridged divisions among military leaders.

"I can tell you that all these leaders are fundamentally in agreement on how we should proceed in Iraq," Morrell said in a statement. "They came to agreement after serious and lengthy discussions about the dramatic security gains in Iraq, the threats that still exist there and the uncertainties that remain."

In recent months, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stressed the importance of increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan to counter a growing threat by extremists.

But because of the strains of combat on the armed forces, plans to boost the number of troops in Afghanistan have depended on reducing the size of the force in Iraq.

One source of the strain, the 2007 troop buildup ordered by Bush, came to an end in July, when the last of 21,500 additional combat troops left. Throughout the year, as the troop buildup was ending, the number of forces in Iraq gradually declined.

But Petraeus requested a halt in the troop cuts over the summer while officials assessed conditions.

Among other troop recommendations, the Pentagon has asked Bush to send a Marine battalion -- about 1,000 troops -- to Afghanistan in November. They would replace 3,200 Marines who were sent to Iraq earlier this year and are due to leave.

The troop changes would mean that before next spring, when fighting is expected to intensify, an additional brigade along with the Marine battalion would bolster the U.S. force in Afghanistan by about 1,300 troops. Including the current Marine units, there now are about 34,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Petraeus' insistence on keeping a larger troop presence in Iraq would prevent a larger shift sought by the Joint Chiefs. Commanders in Afghanistan have requested three additional brigades. And members of the Joint Chiefs had hoped to be able to send at least one brigade by the end of the year.

However, Petraeus has worried over the departure of other nations from the U.S.-led Iraq coalition, including the reduction in forces by Britain and the abrupt recall last month of 2,000 Georgian troops.

White House officials declined to comment on the Petraeus recommendation. Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates are expected to testify before Congress about the recommendation next Wednesday. An announcement by Bush is expected shortly afterward.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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