BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – The U.S. military commander in Iraq has suggested he will recommend a cut in U.S. troop numbers around March when he delivers long-awaited testimony to Congress next week.
General David Petraeus’ comments are the latest sign that U.S. commanders believe President George W. Bush’s decision to send an extra 30,000 soldiers to Iraq earlier this year has improved security enough to warrant a reduction in force levels.
In Sydney for a meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders, Bush said on Wednesday he saw signs of progress in Iraq on both the military and political fronts and again held out the possibility of a cut in troop numbers from the current 160,000.
Petraeus, in an interview with ABC News, signalled he was looking at March for reducing troop levels. “The surge will run its course. There are limits to what our military can provide, so, my recommendations have to be informed by — not driven by — but they have to be informed by the strain we have put on our military services,” Petraeus said. “That has to be a key factor in what I will recommend,” he told ABC News in Baghdad in an interview broadcast late on Tuesday.
When asked if the drawdown would happen in March, Petraeus replied: “Your calculations are about right.” Petraeus will present his assessment to Congress next week, along with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
While it was still very dangerous in Iraq, Petraeus said the troop buildup had produced an “initiative, in general, against al Qaeda, which is a change, and that is an important change”.
Bush is under mounting pressure from opposition Democrats and some senior Republicans who want U.S. troops to start leaving after more than four years of war in which 3,700 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.
Four more soldiers were killed in Baghdad on Tuesday, three of them by a roadside bomb, the military said. Their deaths took to five the number of U.S. soldiers killed so far in September. About three soldiers died each day on average in August.
U.S. opponents of the war have also criticised Iraq’s leaders for failing to pass laws seen as vital to healing divisions between warring majority Shi’ites and Sunni Arabs.
In the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met the reclusive spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to seek his advice on filling vacancies in his cabinet caused by a series of walkouts. “I discussed with him the case of the government. I asked his help in forming a government and nominating new ministers, or if there is the possibility to form a new government based on technocrats,” Maliki told reporters afterwards.
Sistani is the sponsor of the prime minister’s ruling United Alliance and rarely leaves his home in Najaf in southern Iraq.
Bush, who made a surprise visit to Iraq on his way to Sydney, said no final decision had been made on troop levels. “I’m not interested in artificial timetables, or dates of withdrawal. I’m interested in achieving an objective,” he said at a news conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Bush said the Petraeus-Crocker recommendations would be key to helping him formulate his strategy, but stopped short of saying whether a report he would submit to Congress after their testimony would contain further specifics on troop levels. His upbeat view contrasted sharply with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which said Iraq had failed to meet 11 of 18 political and military benchmarks set by the U.S. Congress in May, including elimination of militia control of local security. “Violence remains high, the number of Iraqi security forces capable of conducting independent operations has declined, and militias are not disarmed,” the GAO, the investigating arm of Congress, said on Tuesday.