Army considers scaling back

WASHINGTON – The Army could begin drawing down its troop levels in Iraq as soon as next year in what would be the first significant drop in U.S. forces since the beginning of the war, according to one of the Army’s top generals.

Gen. Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said Thursday that he sees the next rotation of troops in Iraq as being smaller than the current standing force of about 138,000 troops, though he declined to speculate on how much smaller. He said top combat commanders are discussing the possibility of a smaller U.S. presence in Iraq over the next two years, a decision that could come as soon as April, when Gen. George Casey, who commands the troops in Iraq, meets with defense officials in Washington.

“I think for the next force rotation, we’ll start seeing that force rotation coming in will be smaller than the force that’s in there right now,” Cody said.

A determining factor in scaling back force levels, Cody said, will be the Iraqi security forces’ ability to take a greater role in protecting the country from insurgents. Defense officials have been hoping to be able to withdraw some troops as Iraqi forces come on line, but it is unclear how capable those forces are and when they will be able to handle a difficult insurgency.

Cody said the shift could come “because of the success in the elections, and because of the success against the (insurgency) , as well as the rapid growth of the Iraqi National Guard and the Iraqi army.”

U.S. forces in Iraq now number nearly 150,000, boosted by more than 10,000 U.S. troops sent to help secure the country’s first elections in late January. That number is far above what U.S. commanders had planned to have in Iraq at this point, and the inflated troop levels have been straining the Army in various ways. An unexpectedly resilient insurgency and a consistent barrage of sophisticated attacks have kept U.S. troops on the offensive across a large swath of Iraq.

Associated Press

New Iraqi troops train Thursday near Basra, Iraq. Iraqi forces’ ability to thwart insurgents will be key to the United States pulling out its troops.

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