BAGHDAD Iraq's security has improved so much, even as U.S. troop levels have dropped, that President Bush seems likely to order thousands more soldiers home by year's end.
That was not the widespread view only three months ago when Bush announced there would be a temporary halt to troop reductions once the last of five "surge" brigades left Iraq this month. Many believed the country would remain too fragile to justify thinning American combat lines before 2009.
However, two weeks of observing U.S. and Iraqi troops in and around Baghdad, coupled with Associated Press interviews with commanders and planners, suggest a likelihood that Bush will move to reduce the U.S. force by perhaps another combat brigade, or roughly 3,000-4,000 soldiers, toward the end of the year. More cuts seem possible next year, but the scale and timing will depend on who replaces Bush in the White House.
It now looks as though Bush has more reasons to resume the drawdown than to leave the entire decision to his successor. Not all the reasons are good news: The situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan, and commanders there say they need a substantial infusion of combat power and military trainers to curb the insurgency.
Politically, the Iraqi government is asserting its wish for a speed-up in U.S. troop withdrawals. On Monday the chief spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the government hopes the U.S. withdraws its combat troops by 2010.
U.S. domestic political pressures to get out of Iraq are building, too. Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama, who met with al-Maliki in Baghdad on Monday, says he would get all combat forces out within 16 months of taking office. Republican John McCain is opposed to setting any timeline for withdrawals and says troops will come home as security improves. That's what the White House says, too.
Extra reductions this year might be made by simply canceling plans to replace a combat brigade that is finishing its 15-month tour in Iraq this fall. The departing brigade's operating area most likely would be assumed by a unit nearby, spreading it thinner as has been done in numerous instances over the past year.
Fresh reductions this fall would entail some risk of losing momentum toward a stable Iraq.
The Iraqi army, though increasingly competent, is still weak in some areas, and the Iraqi police are a much bigger question mark. Shrinking the U.S. force further would go against the ingrained inclination of its commanders, who tend to be cautious, in part out of fear of sacrificing gains achieved at the cost of many American lives.
Despite talk from al-Maliki of ending the dominant U.S. role in his country, interviews with a number of his generals suggest that they are in no rush to see the Americans leave.
Still, Lt. Gen. Wajih Hammed, the commander of all Iraq army forces in western Baghdad, said it would be "a natural outcome" for all foreign forces to eventually leave Iraq. "I have no issue with that next year and beyond," he said when asked if he favored U.S. reductions this fall.
Arguments for sticking much longer to the current U.S. force size now about 147,000 troops are losing ground. The Iraqis are showing, in ways not seen even a year ago, that they can handle themselves against the insurgents, whose influence is waning.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an AP interview that 70 percent of the Iraqi army's approximately 110 combat battalions are now in leading roles on the battlefield, with U.S. troops in support.
Throughout five-plus years of war, U.S. troop levels have hovered in the 130,000-150,000 range. The number stood at about 135,000 in January 2007 when Bush sent the first of 30,000 reinforcements. By the end of this summer the total is expected to slip to about 140,000 fewer than half of whom are combat troops; the others perform support roles like maintenance or transportation.
If the U.S. pulled out an additional combat brigade later in the year, that would push the total even lower.
One wild card involves the provincial elections that will give the Sunnis, who boycotted the last round of elections, a chance to gain new positions of influence over decisions on budgets, services and other functions of government that have been dominated by the majority Shiites. The elections are supposed to be held on Oct. 1, but the nation's elections authority on Sunday proposed a delay until December due to a political stalemate.
Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, whose troops are responsible for areas south of Baghdad, says the elections are so critical to the future course of events in Iraq that he sees no reason to consider troop cuts yet.
"I would not feel comfortable making a recommendation to my boss prior to the elections," Oates told the AP.
And Petraeus has not been advocating further U.S. troop cuts. Not yet. He's got about another month before he submits a recommendation to his bosses in the Pentagon on force levels for this fall and beyond. The longer he waits the more evidence he can weigh and thus the more credible will be his words.
In the meantime, Petraeus offers a notably dry, noncommittal response when asked about new troop cuts.
"We think it would be prudent to conduct some assessments for a period and then, when we're confident, to make recommendations if the conditions obtain to make some further reductions," he said Saturday.