WASHINGTON - Democratic Congressional leaders have expressed dismay that President Barack Obama is planning to leave as many as 50,000 US troops in Iraq even after the long-awaited withdrawal of combat troops next year.
Obama, on a visit to a military base in North Carolina today, will announce plans to make good on his campaign pledge to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq. There are about 145,000 US troops in Iraq and Obama is expected to say that most of the combat troops will be withdrawn by August next year.
The president called Congressional leaders to the White House yesterday to inform them in advance of his plan.
But the Congress members, most of whom were opposed to the war, expressed regret afterwards that so many, between 35,000 and 50,000, are to be left behind.
According to one congressional official, lawmakers were told that General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, and General Ray Odierno, the top commander in Baghdad, believed the plan presented moderate risk but supported the 50,000 figure.
When Obama was on the campaign trail, his promise to withdraw US troops was widely understood to mean all US troops, even though his advisers said a large force would be left behind to help with training, as back-up support for the Iraqi government and to prevent a return of al-Qaida-linked forces.
Before meeting Obama, Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said he would convey his concern, saying that "talk about 50,000 - that's a little higher number than I anticipated".
John McHugh, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said Obama promised him to reconsider the new strategy if violence rises. McHugh said he was worried the situation in Iraq remained fragile, especially as it approaches elections in December.
"Our commanders must have the flexibility they need in order to respond to these challenges, and President Obama assured me that there is a 'Plan B,'" he said in a statement.
Some Democrats are sceptical but because they say it would leave too many troops behind.
"I have been one for a long time that's called for significant cutbacks in Iraq, and I am happy to listen to the secretary of defence and the president," senate majority leader, Harry Reid, told reporters before the briefing. "But when they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated."
In a separate development, the US military will allow news media to cover the return of the bodies of service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a reversal of George Bush's policy of bringing the flag-draped coffins back into the country in secret.
The Pentagon has long acknowledged the toll on public support for war that images of the coffins could take. The Vietnam war was heavily televised, and media images of casualties helped turn the country against the conflict.
In 1999, a top American general said that US military conflicts must pass the "Dover test" of public reaction to casualties, named after Dover air force base in Delaware, where casualties arrive.
In 2003, with the US public already deeply divided on the war on Iraq, the Bush administration began enforcing the ban worldwide, with military officials even prohibiting photographs of body bags at bases in Iraq.
Bush administration officials said the ban protected families' privacy. Critics said it was a heavy-handed way of keeping the public in the dark about the human toll. In Britain, photographers are permitted to cover the return of fallen soldiers.
The ban dates back to the 1991 Gulf war but was overlooked during the Clinton administration.