WASHINGTON, June 24 — The top American commander in Iraq has drafted a plan that projects sharp reductions in the United States military presence there by the end of 2007, with the first cuts coming this September, American officials say.
According to a classified briefing at the Pentagon this week by the commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the number of American combat brigades in Iraq is projected to decrease to 5 or 6 from the current level of 14 by December 2007.
Under the plan, the first reductions would involve two combat brigades that would rotate out of Iraq in September without being replaced. Military officials do not typically characterize reductions by total troop numbers, but rather by brigades. Combat brigades, which generally have about 3,500 troops, do not make up the bulk of the 127,000-member American force in Iraq, and other kinds of units would not be pulled out as quickly.
American officials emphasized that any withdrawals would depend on continued progress, including the development of competent Iraqi security forces, a reduction in Sunni Arab hostility toward the new Iraqi government and the assumption that the insurgency will not expand beyond Iraq's six central provinces. Even so, the projected troop withdrawals in 2007 are more significant than many experts had expected.
General Casey's briefing has remained a closely held secret, and it was described by American officials who agreed to discuss the details only on condition of anonymity. Word of the plan comes after a week in which the American troop presence in Iraq was stridently debated in Congress, with Democratic initiatives to force troop withdrawals defeated in the Senate.
The commander met this week with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Friday, General Casey and Mr. Rumsfeld met with President Bush at the White House. A senior White House official said that General Casey did not present a formal plan for Mr. Bush's approval but rather a concept of how the United States might move forward after consulting with Iraqi authorities, including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
"The recent conversations that have taken place are all designed to formulate our thinking in concert with the new Iraqi government," said the White House official, who declined to discuss specific cuts. "What this process allows is for General Casey to engage with the new Maliki government so it can go from a notional concept to a practical plan of security implementation over the next two years."
Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters on Thursday that no final decisions would come on troop withdrawals until General Casey consulted with the new Iraqi government. "We expect that General Casey will come back and make a recommendation after he's had those discussions, which he has not yet had," he said.
Proponents of General Casey's approach described it as a carefully synchronized plan to turn over authority for security to the new Iraqi government. The administration has repeatedly said that American troops will begin to stand down as Iraqi forces stand up and begin to assert control. Although the planning for 2006 is advanced, officials say the projected withdrawals for 2007 are more of a forecast of what may be possible given current trends than a hard timeline.
But critics of the Bush administration handing of the war question whether the ambitious goals for withdrawing troops are realistic given the difficulties in maintaining order there. The insurgency has proven resilient despite several big military operations over the years, and previous forecasts of significant troop withdrawals have yet to materialize.
Now, after criticizing Democratic lawmakers for trying to legislate a timeline for withdrawing troops, skeptics say, the Bush administration seems to have its own private schedule, albeit one that can be adjusted as events unfold.
If executed, the plan could have considerable political significance. The first reductions would take place before this falls Congressional elections, while even bigger cuts might come before the 2008 presidential election.
According to accounts by American officials, General Casey's briefing identifies four main threats in Iraq: Al Qaeda, criminal groups, Iranian support for violent Shiite organizations and ethnic and sectarian strife over the distribution of power.
In the general's briefing, the future American role in Iraq is divided into three phases. The next 12 months was described as a period of stabilization. The period from the summer of 2007 through the summer of 2008 was described as a time when the emphasis would be on the restoration of the Iraqi government's authority. The period from the summer of 2008 though the summer of 2009 was cast as one in which the Iraqi government would be increasingly self-reliant.
In line with this vision, some cuts would begin soon. The United States has 14 combat brigades in Iraq, plus many other support troops. Under the plan, the Unites States would shrink this force to 12 combat brigades by September. This would be done by not replacing two brigades that are scheduled to be withdrawn: the First Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division and the Third Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division.
A combat brigade would be kept on alert in Kuwait or elsewhere in case American commanders needed to augment their forces to deal with a crisis. Another brigade would be kept on a lesser state of alert elsewhere in the world, but still prepared to deploy quickly. As a result of these arrangements, the plan to bring the combat force down to 12 active brigades in Iraq is being called 12-1-1.
Still further reductions might be made by the end of the year. By December, the number of American combat brigades in Iraq would be 10 to 12. As with the September reduction, a brigade would be kept on alert and another brigade would be ready to deploy.
According to the projections in General Casey's briefing, the number of combat brigades would shrink to seven to eight brigades by June 2007 and finally to five to six brigades by December 2007.
At the same time the number of bases in Iraq would decline as American forces consolidated. By the end of the year the number of bases would shrink to 57 from the current 69. By June 2007, there would be 30 bases, and by December 2007 there would be only 11. By the end of 2007, the United States would have three principal regional military commands: in Baghdad and the surrounding area, in Anbar Province and the west and in northern Iraq.
The reduction and consolidation of the American force is contingent on the growth and expansion of the Iraqi forces. According to the plan, the Iraqis are to have five army divisions that will control their own swaths of territory in Iraq by September. By December, that number is to grow to nine. A 10th Iraqi Division is to take on an operational role in the dangerous Anbar Province in western Iraq in the spring of 2007.
Estimating the precise number of American troops that may be deployed in Iraq at the end of 2007 is difficult, one officer said. A reduction of eight combat brigades would shrink the number of combat forces by about 28,000 troops. But that does not mean that the reduction in the remainder of the force would be proportional. Troops would still be needed to deliver supplies and staff headquarters. Also, the American military would continue to help the Iraqis with logistics, intelligence, training and airstrikes.
But the reduction in combat brigades would have an importance beyond troop numbers. The American strategy is to gradually shift the responsibility for fighting the insurgency to the new Iraqi military and to encourage the Iraqi forces to secure the nation's territory. Arranging for the Iraqis to take on increasing combat role is the key to reducing the American military presence in Iraq.
As American forces draw down, a growing number of provinces are also scheduled to revert to Iraqi control. Prime Minister Maliki has said that his government will take over responsibility for security in Muthanna Province this summer. Located in southern Iraq near Kuwait, Muthanna is the most peaceful of the southern provinces.
Officials said General Casey's briefing did address the long-term American presence beyond 2007. At the end of that year, the United States would still have responsibility for the Iraq capital and the area west of Baghdad, two of the most violent areas in the country.
Asked for comment on the general's meeting with Mr. Bush, a White House spokesman said in a statement: "The president has clearly stated he will listen to the commanders on the ground. We are constantly evaluating our posture and the growing capability of the Iraqi security forces.
"As we move forward, we will closely work with the new Iraqi government as they develop plans to take more and more responsibility for securing their country and providing for the Iraqi people. The president appreciates the opportunity to meet with Secretary Rumsfeld and General Casey to forge a way forward with the new Iraqi government."
© Copyright 2006 New York Times