Pace expected to suggest drastic troop cuts in Iraq

WASHINGTON — The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is expected to advise President Bush to reduce the U.S. force in Iraq next year by almost half, potentially creating a rift with top White House officials and other military commanders on the course of the war.

Administration and military officials say Marine Gen. Peter Pace is likely to convey concerns that keeping a force well in excess of 100,000 troops in Iraq through 2008 would severely strain the military. This assessment could collide with one being prepared by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, calling for the U.S. to maintain higher troop levels for the next year and beyond.

Petraeus is expected to support a White House view that the absence of widespread political progress in Iraq requires several more months of the U.S. troop “surge,” with force levels declining to pre-buildup levels sometime next year.

Pace’s recommendations reflect the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who initially expressed skepticism in private about the strategy ordered by Bush and directed by Petraeus before publicly backing it.

According to administration and military officials, the Joint Chiefs believe it is of strategic importance to reduce the size of the U.S. force in Iraq in order to bolster the military’s ability to respond to other threats, a view shared by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Pace is expected to offer his advice privately instead of issuing a formal report. Still, the position of Pace and the Joint Chiefs could add weight to that of Bush administration critics, including Democratic presidential candidates, that the U.S. force should be reduced.

Those critics include Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who Thursday called on Bush to begin withdrawing troops in September to pressure the Iraqi government to move toward political compromise.

According to a senior administration official, the Joint Chiefs in recent weeks have pressed concerns that the Iraq war has degraded the U.S. military’s ability to respond, if needed, to other threats, such as Iran.

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