Even with cutbacks promised by President Bush, the United States may wind up with thousands more troops in Iraq next summer than before the buildup of forces he ordered in January.
Bush approved the redeployment of five Army combat brigades and three Marine contingents between now and July 2008, but that does not account for thousands of support forces including military police and an Army combat aviation brigade that were sent as "enablers" and that apparently will stay longer.
For example, the headquarters staff of the 3rd Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, was sent in April to establish a new operational command area south and southeast of Baghdad. They were not counted among the original "surge" forces, and it's not clear how long they will remain.
There currently are about 169,000 U.S. troops in Iraq the highest total of the war. When Bush announced a buildup last January as the centerpiece of a new war strategy, there were 130,000 to 135,000 in Iraq.
In a visit to the Marine base at Quantico, Va., on Friday, Bush said commanders in Iraq would "have the flexibility and the troops needed to achieve the mission," and he urged Congress to heed the advice of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, not to withdraw too speedily.
"I also expect the Congress to support our men and women in uniform and their families," Bush said.
He spoke shortly after the White House sent to Congress aon key goals such as passing legislation meant to promote a national reconciliation.
Next week the Senate is expected to resume debate on anti-war legislation. Democratic leaders are expected to call for a vote on about a half dozen amendments, including one by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would require troops to spend as much time at home as they do on combat tours in Iraq.
It's not yet clear how large the U.S. force will be by next summer, and the ambiguity is feeding a sense among anti-war critics that progress Bush claims U.S. forces have made in recent months is too fragile to put the administration on a path to winding down the war before the president leaves office in January 2009.
"It's clear that President Bush intends to drag this process out month after month, year after year, so that he can hand his Iraqi policy off to the next president," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "We have to change our policy now."
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called administration officials "phonies" for suggesting the modest troop withdrawal is the result of gains made in Iraq, rather than the reality that the military is stretched too thin.
Biden, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, added, "There is no plan 'to win.' No plan how to leave. No plan how to end this. It's just a plan to keep ... all the venom from spilling out over the region, and we're using somewhere between 160,000 to 130,000 troops to do that."
When Petraeus delivered his much-anticipated Iraq report to Congress on Monday, he said he had recommended to Bush that they send home the Army and Marine forces that were part of the buildup Bush announced in January. Petraeus did not mention a troop reduction total, but the impression gained by many in Congress was that it was equivalent to the approximately 30,000 in the buildup.
In an Associated Press interview Thursday, Petraeus suggested the number would be less than 30,000 but he would not provide a specific figure. He said his staff was working out redeployment details.
It appears the reduction will be closer to 25,000, possibly less. Forecasts of future troop levels in Iraq are hazardous, as history has shown, because of the unpredictable nature of the conflict. Large reductions were planned for the latter half of 2006, but a flareup in violence killed that proposal.
In the interview, Petraeus mentioned one concrete example of a support element that likely will be kept after the "surge" combat forces leave. He cited some 2,000 military police sent last spring to help manage the extra detainees captured in stepped-up U.S. offensives in Baghdad and elsewhere. Some of those, he said, probably would remain after the extra combat units are withdrawn because detainee control will remain a challenge.
He gave other, largely overlooked examples during his congressional testimony. In an exchange Monday with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., he said other forces were brought to Iraq this year for a variety of tasks.
They include an unspecified number of personnel associated with work on countering the insurgents' weapon of choice, the roadside bomb, Petraeus said. He also mentioned, without elaboration, that additional "intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance assets" were added to the force. He did not say how many would be brought home as the "surge" winds down; he described them as resources and people that "we would have wanted regardless of whether we were surging or not."