Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due to return to Washington from Baghdad in April to report to Congress on how the war-fighting strategy is working and how to proceed on troop-level decisions. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely describe administration thinking, said their testimony would come April 8-9.
Petraeus has talked in recent weeks about favoring a "period of assessment" after the currently planned troop withdrawals conclude in mid-July. He has said a pause seems necessary to give a clearer indication of the impact of those troop cuts - on the insurgency and other local conditions - before recommending any more.
The official, who briefed reporters at the White House, said Petraeus will recommend in his April report that the pause last for "four to six weeks-ish." That would mean a new assessment of troop levels wouldn't come until mid-August or even sometime in September.
A suspension is based on the notion that continuing reductions beyond July at the currently planned pace could lead to an erosion in the still-fragile security gains made over the last several months.
Despite that, the official said that "this is not a stall tactic" meant to delay or end hopes of bringing more troops home from Iraq. "I fully expect there to be more reductions this year - and so does the president," the official said.
The official was careful to note, however, that reductions might only be announced in 2008, with many or all of them possibly not leaving Iraq until later.
Also, the pause would be Bush's decision to make - not Petraeus'.
Petraeus' recommendation is only one piece of the puzzle the president will consider in April. Though he has always said that the advice of the commanders in the field is the driving force behind his decisions, Bush takes into account the views of others, such as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are responsible for maintaining the health of the entire armed forces, and regional commanders, who must weigh the need for forces in other parts of the world.
Bush will participate in about two weeks of briefings from all involved before Petraeus and Crocker testify on Capitol Hill, the official said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said recently that he also favors a suspension in the drawdown, after hoping earlier that the second half of the year could take the U.S. presence in Iraq to around 10 brigades.
On Thursday, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was unclear how long the president might choose to wait after July before resuming troop reductions.
"We don't know how long the pause is going to" last, Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon. He noted that when Gates endorsed the concept of a pause on Feb. 11 he said he hoped it would be brief.
Mullen has emphasized that the question of when to resume troop reductions, after July, is closely related to the Pentagon's efforts to strike a balance between maintaining momentum in Iraq and providing relief for troops and their families.
Mullen has declined to say publicly whether he favors even a brief suspension of troop reductions after July. Led by Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff are studying the issue of troop levels in Iraq while taking into account other global commitments of the U.S. military, including the war in Afghanistan.
There currently are about 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Last January, on Bush's order, the military began sending an additional five Army brigades to Iraq to help implement a new approach to countering the insurgency.
The last of the five extra brigades arrived in June, raising the total number of brigades in Iraq to 20. In line with a plan recommended by Petraeus and approved by Bush last September, the number of brigades fell to 19 in December and is scheduled to drop to 18 in March. It would reach 15 by July, representing a troop total of about 140,000.