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Troop Decisions Hinge on Conditions in Iraq

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29, 2008 – The number of troops needed in Iraq, the length of the tours for those troops, the kinds of troops they need to be, and other such decisions rely on the conditions on the ground in Iraq, Defense Department officials said today. (Video)

Officials in Iraq, at U.S. Central Command and at the Joint Staff are working to assess conditions in Iraq and to plan troop deployments and redeployments for the future, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said at a news conference here.

This time last year, conditions in Iraq were terrible. Al Qaeda was growing, and sectarian fighting left thousands dead and many thousands fleeing for their lives.

Defense officials changed the strategy in Iraq, and President Bush committed five brigade combat teams and their support elements to the fight in the country. The surge put 20,000 more combat troops on the ground and allowed the coalition and its Iraqi allies to fully implement the “clear, hold, build” strategy that has resulted in a significant drop in violent acts in Iraq.

In September, defense officials announced that 20,000 troops would redeploy out of Iraq, with the first brigade combat team leaving in December. Four more brigades are on track to redeploy by the end of July.

But it is all dependent on conditions on the ground, officials said, noting that at any point, the redeployment could stop or speed up, depending on the conditions in Iraq. Morrell told reporters that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has stressed this point in every discussion about the situation in the country.

“He has expressed his desire that if conditions permit, the drawdown can continue with the pace which it has begun,” Morrell said. “But that, as he said every time, is totally conditions-based.”

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, will each work on recommendations for the future. Petraeus will make his recommendations based on the conditions in Iraq, and Fallon will make his based on conditions in the entire Central Command area of operations, which stretches from Egypt to Pakistan and Yemen to Kazakhstan. The Joint Chiefs of Staff will examine the situation in Iraq and make their recommendations based on global military requirements. All will report to the defense secretary and President Bush.

“And while conditions have continued to improve to a large extent in Iraq, that's a decision that the president’s going to have to make after he hears from General Petraeus, from the Joint Chiefs and from the secretary,” Morrell said.

Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker are scheduled to testify before Congress on conditions on the ground in Iraq in April, the press secretary said.

Morrell said he has seen nothing that would indicate the current pace of redeployment out of Iraq will change through July. A total of 20,000 combat troops will leave by then, but it is unclear if the support forces will draw down at the same rate.

“I think General Petraeus has been trying to determine … how many of those forces he needs to retain to do the rest of his job,” Morrell said.

Morrell said these forces are the enablers for the Iraqi military. The support forces provide aviation support, medical evacuation, logistical support and transportation to the Iraqi security forces.

“As we draw down our combat forces and stand up the Iraqi forces, they may be needed more than ever,” he said. “The Iraqi forces clearly have the will and the capability to fight. We've seen that time and time again. Where they are lacking are in their logistical capabilities. And that is precisely the kinds of services that are provided by … our support forces.”

Defense officials are wrestling with these decisions. Improvements on the ground would allow the redeployment to continue after July. Fewer brigade combat teams in Iraq would allow the Army to shorten the combat tours from 15 months to 12, and allow more time between deployments. Still, military officials will not rush the process.

The commander of Multinational Corps Iraq said in a Jan. 17 interview from Baghdad that the coalition must move ahead slowly, taking full notice of what is happening. In the past, coalition forces often turned over territory before the Iraqi security forces could handle the responsibility, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said.

“We won't make some of the mistakes we've made in the past -- turning (areas) over too quickly, where we lose ground and give some of these extremist elements a chance,” he said. “We don't want to give them another chance. We don't want to give them anything back.”

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