Story by John Kruzel
WASHINGTON - Plans to withdraw four Army brigade combat teams and two Marine battalions by July are "on track" as the military seeks to draw down the number of troops in Iraq as quickly as ground conditions allow, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Jan. 27.
Appearing on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said the scheduled withdrawal will reduce the number of troops at the height of the surge by one quarter, or roughly 42,500. Further reductions after July will be based on the state of Iraq's security, he added.
"The guidance that (Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates) in fact has given me -- and the president and my chain of command, what all of them have said -- is that reductions after July should be conditions-based," he said.
The general said after the upcoming drawdown, Defense Department and military officials will need time to "let things settle a bit" before making further reduction assessments. Their focus, he said, will be on removing forces expeditiously, but without undercutting progress made during the troop surge that launched this time last year.
Petraeus, commander of Multi-national Force Iraq, said drawdowns aim to relieve strains on service members, many of whom have engaged in multiple and extended deployments to support U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Force level reductions also would save money and cut back the flow of resources, he said.
The Army strives to provide Soldiers the highest possible amount of "dwell time" -- the period at home stations between deployments -- and reduce deployments from 15 months to 12, the general added.
"But we want to do it, again, in a way that will allow these gains to be maintained. We don't want to jeopardize what we have fought so hard for," he said. "The key is to make the timing of that right and to figure out when that will make sense."
Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker are expected in coming months to give Congress a follow-up to the military and diplomatic progress update they delivered in September.
Asked about Iraqi security forces' capability, Petraeus said the roughly 550,000-strong force is assuming an increasingly larger role in maintaining the country's security. The overall forces -- composed of some 343,000 police members, 208,000 defense ministry soldiers and 4,000 special operations forces -- suffer nearly three times the number of U.S military casualties, which Petraeus said indicated the Iraqis' devotion to stability in their country.
Earlier this month, more than 2 million religious pilgrims gathered in Iraq to celebrate the Islamic holiday Ashura. In a ceremony that has been marked in recent years by "terrible bloodshed," the Jan. 18 holiday occurred with minimal violence, the general said.
"The Iraqi security forces planned this year the security for that, ... and in fact, in Najaf, Karbala, and Baghdad the celebrations went off virtually without incident," he said, conceding that violence occurred in Basra and Nasiriya. "But Iraqi security forces responded in each of those cases and dealt with the situation."
Officials have stated that reductions of U.S. forces in Iraq depend largely on an Iraqi security force that is capable of tamping down violence in the country. Petraeus noted that half of Iraq's 18 provinces currently are under provincial control, but pointed out that Iraq's security institutions face challenges in breeding military leaders and in equipping and maintaining the current forces.
"(Leadership) is the area that is probably the most difficult, because you just can't find captains, colonels, and generals out there in the numbers that they need by just going back to those who are willing to serve from the old army -- not all of whom, perhaps, have the qualities that one would want in the leadership of the new Iraq army anyway," Petraeus said.
"It is easy, relatively speaking, to develop infantry battalions; it is very difficult to develop the institutional underpinnings that support those forces, maintain their vehicles, get them paid on time, feed them, and all of the rest of that," he added.
Petraeus said Iraqi security forces are handling the challenges. The handover of responsibility from U.S. to Iraqi forces is occurring not like a light switch, he said, but more like a rheostat, referring to the type of electrical resistor that adjusts to allow the flow of a current to grow in increments.
The Multi-national Force Iraq commander said he does not foresee the U.S. maintaining a permanent military presence in Iraq, but rather a smaller number of U.S. troops remaining in Iraq "for some period of years." Citing key pieces of legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament recently, Petraeus said in the future he envisions troops performing a mission that places greater emphasis on empowering Iraq's "reconcilables," those who embrace cooperation over divisiveness.
"I think our Soldiers were prepared intellectually for the concept that there were reconcilables whom we needed to reach out to and try to become part of the solution over time, rather than part of the problem," he said. "And you try to minimize the number of irreconcilables, because at the end of the day, they have to be killed, captured, or run out of the country."