WASHINGTON (AFP) — President George W. Bush is unlikely to reduce US forces in Iraq to less than levels just before the surge this year for fear of putting at risk security gains, US analysts said Wednesday.
The top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, will make recommendations in March or April on whether more troops can come home in the second half of the year, further shrinking the size of US force in Iraq.
The military already has committed to reducing the size of the force from 19 to 15 combat brigades by July, bringing troop levels down from about 160,000 to about 130,000 troops -- the level before the "surge" troop hike that was launched a year ago.
But tension is developing between commanders in Iraq, who are wary about reducing US forces too quickly, and the military leadership at the Pentagon, who want to ease the strain on US ground forces as quickly as possible.
"General Petraeus is under pressure from the army, from the Central Command and the Joint Chiefs to continue the withdrawals after the drawdown of five brigades," said Peter Rodman, a former senior Pentagon official.
"People in the military have the responsibility to worry about the stress on the forces, about the contingencies in the Middle East and in the world at large," he said at a conference on Iraq at the Brookings Institution.
But Rodman added, "The president's priority is: what do we need to do to prevail in Iraq? He wants to succeed in Iraq, that's his priority."
Bush indicated earlier this month during a visit to Kuwait that he will defer to Petraeus' judgement, telling reporters that if the general wants to slow the pace of troop withdrawals, "that's fine with me."
"I said to the general, 'If you want to slow her down, fine. It's up to you.'"
Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the number two commander in Iraq, cautioned recently against a quick drawdown.
"What we don't want to do is suddenly pull out a whole bunch of US forces and suddenly turn things over to the Iraqi security forces. I would like to see it done very slowly over time," he said.
Phillip Gordon, another Brookings analyst, said the gains made by the surge, including a cease-fire among Shiite militias in the south and the rallying of Sunni militias to the side of US forces in Al Anbar province, are fragile.
"I don't think we will be facing a prospect of a level below pre-surge troop levels any time soon," he said.
"The president has invested so much in some form of success in Iraq that if General Petraeus even hints to him there is any risk in going down below 130,000, I just can't imagine that he is going to be doing this," he said.
Even if the army insists on reducing the strains on its deployed forces, he said, "Bush is not going to risk his Iraq legacy for these reasons."
Michael O'Hanlon said the military already is making a "fairly dramatic reduction" by bringing the size of the force down to 15 combat brigades from 20 at the peak of the surge.
"It makes sense to take it a little slowly from that point onwards," he said. "Going down to 10 combat brigades would be a fifty percent reduction in the space of just 12 months (which) is to me traumatic and not sufficiently careful and cautious."
US forces have made progress in purging extremists from the government and improving the sectarian balance of the security forces," O'Hanlon said.
But he said "it underscores the degree to which the American presence is important," adding that "there needs to be somebody between the Sunnis and the Shiites."
Gordon said the hard decisions about leaving Iraq will be left to the next president.
"It is not going to be the one who decided to go to war, it is going to be his successor who is going to take the blame for whatever happens after that."
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