white house rethinking troops reduction?

White House shows signs of rethinking cut in troops:

Four months after announcing troop reductions in Iraq, President Bush is now sending signals that the cuts may not continue past this summer, New York Times said on Wednesday.

It said that the development is likely to infuriate Democrats and renew concerns among military planners about strains on the force.

Bush has made no decisions on troop reductions to follow those he announced last September. But White House officials said Bush had been taking the opportunity, as he did in Monday’s State of the Union address, to prepare Americans for the possibility that, when he leaves office a year from now, the military presence in Iraq will be just as large as it was a year ago, or even slightly larger.

The newspaper said Bush wanted to tamp down criticism that a large, sustained presence in Iraq would harm the overall health of the military _ a view held not only by Democrats, but by some members of his own Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Within the Pentagon, senior officers have struggled to balance the demands of the Iraq war against the competing demands to recruit, train and retain a robust and growing ground force.

That institutional tension is personified by two of Bush’s top generals, David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and General Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff. General Petraeus’s mission is to win the war; General Casey must also worry about the health of the whole Army.

“We’re concerned about the health of the force as well, but the most important thing is that they succeed in Iraq,” said one senior White House official, adding, “If the commanders on the ground believe we need to maintain the troop numbers at the current level to maintain security for a little while longer, then that’s what the president will do.”

That strong White House tilt in favor of General Petraeus comes as he prepares to testify before Congress in April about the next step in Iraq. In September, based on General Petraeus’s earlier recommendation, Bush announced that he intended to withdraw five combat brigades and Marine units – roughly 20,000 troops – from Iraq by July. That would leave 15 combat brigades in place.

In his address to Congress, Bush spoke of those reductions, but not of any future ones.

What a continuing commitment of 15 brigades – more than 130,000 troops – would mean for the Army as a whole is said to be a major concern of General Casey, among others on the joint staff.

But officials said Bush’s primary concern was not letting military gains in Iraq slip away, a warning he issued in his State of the Union address.

After meeting General Petraeus in Kuwait this month, he appeared to give the general tacit permission to recommend no further troop reductions.

“My attitude is, if he didn’t want to continue the drawdown, that’s fine with me, in order to make sure we succeed,” Bush said then. “I said to the general, if you want to slow her down, fine, it’s up to you.”

Bush hinted in September that there might be more reductions to come, although he has never made an explicit promise.

The Pentagon has also not made any promises, although military planners have talked about wanting to reduce the number of brigades to 12 from 15 by the end of this year, if the security situation improves enough to permit it.

Bush’s defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, has said he would like to cut even further, eventually dropping to 10 brigades if possible.

But Gates has avoided using specific numbers in more recent comments, and says unswervingly that he would be guided by conditions on the ground.

At the Pentagon, officials said the withdrawal of 20,000 combat troops pledged by Bush left open the future of the 7,000 to 8,000 support and aviation troops that accompanied those “surge” combat forces.

If those extra support troops remain in Iraq even after the withdrawal of the additional combat troops, then it is possible that the number of American military personnel in Iraq after the surge could be higher than before, officials said. –IRNA

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