WASHINGTON—U.S. commanders are unlikely to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq before next summer, the top U.S. military officer in the Middle East said Tuesday.
U.S. military leaders had hoped to bring the number of American forces in Iraq down to around 100,000 by year's end, but high levels of sectarian violence probably will prevent any reductions below the current level of 147,000 before the end of next spring, said Gen. John Abizaid, who oversees the U.S. Central Command.
"I think this level will probably have to be sustained through the spring, and then we'll evaluate," Abizaid said during a breakfast with defense reporters. "I think these are prudent force levels. I think they're achieving the military effect."
Abizaid said more American troops could be sent to Iraq. "If it's necessary to do that because the military situation on the ground requires that, we'll do it," he said.
There are about 20,000 more U.S. troops in Iraq than there were a few months ago, partly because of an overlap between some units rotating in and others rotating out. Alaska's 172nd Stryker Brigade had its deployment extended by 120 days in an effort to improve security in Baghdad. Abizaid said military officials didn't plan to extend the unit's deployment a second time.
Also on Tuesday, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, said Iraq was facing a crucial time.
"The government of Iraq needs to show its own citizens—and the citizens of the United States—that it is deserving of continued support," he said.
Hamilton and the other co-chairman of the study group, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, said at a news conference that the next three months would be vital for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to show progress in securing Baghdad, pursuing national reconciliation and delivering electricity, water and other basic services.
"No one can expect miracles," Hamilton said, "but the people of Iraq have the right to expect immediate action."
Abizaid said security in Baghdad was "slightly better" now than it was before a U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown started in June. The crackdown was designed to stop a cycle of killings between Sunni and Shiite Muslims since insurgents blew up an important Shiite mosque last February.
Abizaid said it probably wouldn't be known until December whether the crackdown would have any lasting effect.
In Iraq on Tuesday, a car bomb exploded in Baghdad and rockets and mortars hit three neighborhoods, killing more than a dozen people, and sectarian slayings were reported in several other cities.
Despite the violence, Abizaid said Iraqis had become more confident about the country's army, which now numbered around 300,000 soldiers, but that many Sunnis distrusted the police. Iraqi police forces, dominated by majority Shiites, are widely considered corrupt, ineffective and in some cases involved in sectarian killings and other violence.
With 147,000 American troops, 23,000 coalition soldiers, 300,000 Iraqi troops and another 100,000 Iraqi paramilitary forces in the country, Abizaid said he thought there were enough "to bring stability over time, provided that governance and institution-building take place."
Although he said U.S. military leaders were prepared to send more American forces to Iraq if necessary, he warned that having too many Americans on the ground would only "feed extremism" and prevent Iraqis from taking responsibility for their own security.
Hamilton and Baker declined to comment on any of the findings by their commission, which was formed at Congress' request. It's been working since March to formulate a series of recommendations on a way forward in Iraq.
Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana, and Baker, who served as secretary of state under President Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, said they didn't plan to release any of the recommendations until after the November elections.
Baker said their study was meant to be nonpartisan and "forward-looking" and wouldn't focus on mistakes that had been made in Iraq.
"We are going to come with what we think is the best thing for the country," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.