Officials: Most US troops to leave Iraq by August 2010
WASHINGTON – The United States plans to withdraw most of its troops from Iraq by August 2010, 19 months after President Barack Obama's inauguration, according to administration officials. The withdrawal plan would fulfill one of Obama's central campaign pledges, albeit a little more slowly than he promised. He said he would withdraw troops within 16 months, roughly one brigade a month from the time of his inauguration.
The officials said they expect Obama to make the announcement this week. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been made public.
The U.S. military will leave behind a residual force, between 30,000 and 50,000 troops, to continue advising and training Iraqi security forces, the two officials said. Also staying beyond the 19 months will be intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, including unmanned aircraft, they said.
A further withdrawal will take place before December 2011, the period by which the U.S. agreed with Iraq to remove all American troops.
A senior White House official said Tuesday that Obama is at least a day away from making a final decision. He further said an announcement on Wednesday was unlikely, but he said that Obama could discuss Iraq during a trip to North Carolina on Friday.
About 142,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, roughly 14 brigades, about 11,000 above the total in Iraq when President George W. Bush announced in January 2007 that he would "surge" the force to put down the insurgency. He sent an additional 21,000 combat troops to Baghdad and Anbar province.
Although the number of combat brigades has dropped from 20 to 14, the U.S. has increased the number of logistical and other support troops. A brigade is usually about 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
Obama's campaign promise to withdraw troops in 16 months was based on a military estimate on what would be an orderly pace of removing troops, given the logistical difficulties of removing so many people and tons of equipment, a U.S. military official said.
The 19-month strategy is a compromise between commanders and advisers who are worried that security gains could backslide in Iraq and those who think the bulk of U.S. combat work is long since done.
The White House considered at least two other options to withdraw combat forces — one that followed Obama's 16-month timeline and one that stretched withdrawal over 23 months, the AP reported earlier this month.
Some U.S. commanders have spoken more optimistically in recent months about prospects for reducing the force. Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who commands U.S. forces in central and southern Iraq, told reporters earlier this month that he believed the gains in stability in that area were now irreversible.
According to officials, Obama had requested a range of options from his top military advisers, including one that would have withdrawn troops in 16 months. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had recently forwarded withdrawal alternatives to the White House for Obama's consideration.
In addition to the U.S. troops to be withdrawn, there is a sizable cadre of contractors who provide services to them who would pack their bags as well. There were 148,050 defense contractor personnel working in Iraq as of December, 39,262 of them U.S. citizens.
There are more than 200 U.S. military installations in Iraq. According to Army officials interviewed by the Government Accountability Office, it can take up to two months to shut down small outposts that hold up to 300 troops. Larger entrenched facilities, like Balad Air Base, could take up to 18 months to close, according to the GAO.
As of Monday, at least 4,250 members of the U.S. military had died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. More than 31,000 have been injured.
Congress has approved more than $657 billion so far for the Iraq war, according to a report last year from the Congressional Research Service.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Lolita C. Baldor, Steven Hurst, Anne Flaherty, Richard Lardner and Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.
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