The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is expected to suggest a reduction in the U.S. troop level in Iraq next year by almost half, according to a Friday report in the Los Angeles Times.
Gen. Peter Pace will make the recommendation to President Bush, the report says, a move that could pit the top military commander against the thinking of many senior White House officials as to how the Iraq war should be carried out.
The Times says administration and military officials have told the paper that Pace will express concerns of his subordinate Joint Chiefs that leaving more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through next year could put too much of a strain on the military.
Pace's advice to Mr. Bush could directly challenge a report being prepared by the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who is calling for sustained troop levels beyond 2008, the Times reports.
According to the newspaper, Pace is expected to give his advice to Mr. Bush privately, instead of making a formal report.
If the report is correct, and such a senior military official does contradict the Bush administration's stated strategy of keeping U.S. force levels high until there are signs of political reconciliation in Iraq, then it could serve to significantly strengthen the position of those who oppose the present course in the war.
On Thursday, senior Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia said President Bush should start bringing home some troops by Christmas, to show the Baghdad government that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended.
The move put the prominent Republican at odds with the president, who has insisted that conditions on the ground should dictate deployments.
Warner said the troop withdrawals are needed because Iraqi leaders have failed to make substantial political progress, despite an influx of U.S. troops initiated by Bush earlier this year.
Warner says the departure of even a small number of U.S. service members — perhaps 5,000 out of the 160,000 troops in Iraq — would send a powerful message throughout the region that time is running out.
But the U.S. military commander in one of Iraq's more troubled areas rejected Friday Warner's proposal — and by default, the expected advice of Pace — saying a withdrawal would mean "a giant step backward" in his region.
Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of troops south of Baghdad, said militants pushed from his sector in recent operations would quickly return.
"If coalition soldiers were to leave, having fought hard for that terrain, having denied the enemy their sanctuaries, what'd happen is the enemy would come back," said Lynch.
"He'd start building the bombs again, he'd start attacking the locals again and he'd start exporting that violence into Baghdad and we would take a giant step backward," Lynch told Pentagon reporters in a video conference from Iraq.
He said recent gains resulted from the buildup of troops in Iraq and that he needs all the forces he has until Iraqis are able to step up and take over, perhaps some time next year.
President Bush has refused to set any dates for the beginning of a troop level reduction, insisting that the decision will be made based on the judgments of commanders in the field.
In other developments: