US President Barack Obama plans to remove all US combat troops from Iraq by August of next year, administration officials said on Tuesday, ending the war that helped define his upstart presidential campaign — although a little more slowly than he promised.
The withdrawal plan — an announcement could come as early as this week — could help Obama turn his attention to another campaign pledge: Deploying more troops to Afghanistan, a region he calls the central front in the war on terrorism.
The timetable is a compromise. Removing so many people and tonnes of equipment presents logistical difficulties. Some commanders and advisers worry that security gains could backslide in Iraq if troops are brought out too soon, while others think the bulk of US combat work is long since done.
“We are now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars, and I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war,” Obama said in his address to Congress on Tuesday.
Obama built enormous grass-roots support for his White House bid by pledging to withdraw troops from Iraq 16 months after taking office. That schedule, based on removing roughly one brigade a month, was predicated on commanders determining that it would not endanger US troops left behind or Iraq’s fragile security.
Obama expects to leave a large contingent of troops in Iraq, between 30,000 and 50,000 troops, after August of next year to advise and train Iraqi security forces and to protect US interests, said two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been made public. The contingent will include intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, such as unmanned aircraft.
The withdrawal of US forces is set to be completed by December 2011, the period by which the US agreed with Iraq to remove all troops.
A senior White House official said on Tuesday that Obama was at least a day away from making a final decision. An announcement on Wednesday was unlikely, he said, but added that Obama could discuss Iraq during a trip to North Carolina on Friday.
About 142,000 US troops are in Iraq, roughly 14 brigades, about 11,000 more than the total in Iraq when former US president George W. Bush announced in January 2007 that he would “surge” the force to put down the insurgency. He sent an additional 21,000 combat troops to Baghdad and Anbar Province.
Although the number of combat brigades has dropped from 20 to 14, the US has increased the number of logistical and other support troops. A brigade is usually about 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
The White House considered at least two other options — one that followed Obama’s 16-month timeline and one that stretched withdrawal over 23 months, a report earlier this month said.
Some US commanders have spoken more optimistically in recent months about prospects for reducing the force.
Marine Major General John Kelly, who just left his job overseeing US operations in Anbar Province, said on Tuesday that he saw violence drop to an almost “meaningless” level over the past year.
Kelly told reporters on Tuesday that in the area that was the home ground of the Sunni insurgency, US combat forces don’t have enough to do and most could have pulled out months ago.
“There is still a security issue there, but in the province I just left the [Iraqi] army and the police are more than handling the remnants of what used to be al-Qaeda,” Kelly said. “There’s other parts of Iraq that aren’t going quite as well but all of Iraq is doing pretty well.”