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Progress in Iraq Reroutes U.S. Troops


Moving on to the situation in Iraq and the possible reduction of U.S. forces there, the Pentagon said this week that a combat brigade of about 3,500 troops would stay in Germany this summer rather than deploy to Iraq. The military says improvements in the political conditions make that possible. Despite a persistent insurgency in Iraq, analysts say that this deferred deployment probably marks the beginning of a broader drawdown of U.S. forces that could be announced in the weeks ahead.

NPR's John Hendren has the story.

JOHN HENDREN: Pentagon officials say the new Iraqi government's progress in naming top officials this month was part of the reason for keeping the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division in Swineford, Germany. Admiral Edmund Giambastiani, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Pentagon reporters that improved training of Iraqi forces is also easing the burden on the 133,000 American troops in Iraq.

EDMUND GIAMBASTIANI: The Iraqis are assuming more and more responsibility for their own security. On April 24, we turned over an area in and around Najaf of approximately the size of the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. I think you'll agree the progress of the Iraqi security forces has been significant.

HENDREN: The Pentagon says there are now 254,000 Iraqi soldiers and police who are trained and equipped. Retired General John Keane, the former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, says that as more of these Iraqis enter the fray, the Pentagon is likely to hold back on scheduled deployments of fresh U.S. forces one brigade at a time.

JOHN KEANE: Many people thought that by the end of the year that we would be below 100,000. I don't see that happening. I don't think the military leaders have considered that as anything realistic. They will not pull people out of there early, which causes morale problems for everybody else that's staying. They just will not bring somebody else in to replace the force that's there, and that's what you see happening with this brigade out of the 1st Infantry Division.

HENDREN: Michael O'Hanlon is a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. He says the drawdown is likely to go very slowly and last years.

MICHAEL O: While there will be some pressure to drawdown this fall and I hope we can, I would be surprised if the numbers got very low. Maybe we're at 110,000 or so at the end of this calendar year and gradually reduce to, let's say, 90,000 in the course of 2007.

HENDREN: Independent military analyst Bill Arkin says the Bush administration's determination to drawdown troops has as much to do with public impatience in the U.S. as with the progress of democracy in Iraq.

BILL ARKIN: At this point, anything that the administration does in Iraq has a political undertone. I don't think that the situation on the ground is improving. Clearly, April was a deadlier month than we have seen in recent months. And there doesn't seem to be any slowdown in the level of suicide killings, IEDs or other types of attacks against American forces.

HENDREN: Arkin concedes that Iraqi forces are shouldering more of the burden of the war on the ground but, he says, the Pentagon has lowered its goals.

ARKIN: It's not as if the United States is "winning" in Iraq. The Bush administration's policy is U.S. forces will withdraw from Iraq as soon as the Iraqis can take up the same fight. And that is a fundamental shift from where the Bush administration was in 2004 or 2005. They have essentially admitted that they are willing to withdraw from Iraq before they have defeated the insurgency and killed the terrorist enemy.

HENDREN: Keane, a former number two Army general, agrees that early assessments were unrealistic.

KEANE: Some people that talked about defeating the insurgency early on, I think it was probably a little premature. And the reality is, I think, that we probably never did a very good job of explaining to the American people when we clearly understood it by the end of '03 that we were up against an organized insurgency, that this would be, by definition, a protracted war. And we should have began then the education of the people in terms of how do you organize to fight something like this, and this will take a very, very long time.

HENDREN: The top commander in Iraq, General George Casey, is expected to make his recommendation on future U.S. troop numbers to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later this month.

John Hendren, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Hendren
John Hendren began covering the Pentagon for NPR in November 2005. His reports can be heard throughout NPR News programming and newscasts.