WASHINGTON — Against the backdrop of the improved security situation in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Thursday a shift in U.S. strategy that will require an extended U.S. presence in Iraq, although with fewer troops.
Gates and top uniformed officers sketched out a plan that runs counter to pledges by Democratic presidential contenders to bring about a rapid drawdown of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. One candidate, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, called for the withdrawal of nearly all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2009.
Gates and the uniformed military leadership said a smaller U.S. presence will be needed for the foreseeable future to provide support for Iraqi forces. They didn't go as far as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., however, who says that U.S. troops may be stationed in Iraq for decades or even a century.
"We'll have some people here, if the government of Iraq wants it, for some period of time. That could be five to 10 years. But it will not be at the levels we're at now. I don't believe that that will be necessary," said Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, during a teleconference from Baghdad.
He said the support could include U.S. air power for five to 10 years, close air support for ground operations, helicopters and "an appropriate number of ground forces that go along with that." Odierno gave no figure for the ground forces, saying "that will be dictated by the situation on the ground."
Gates told reporters that the U.S. mission ultimately will be a "strategic overwatch" in which U.S. forces won't be engaged on a daily basis and Iraqis will take the lead. Under that strategy, Gates said, American forces "are providing support, we are going after al Qaida, we are helping them ...protect their borders, and we are doing training and equipping missions." Gates said the transition already has begun.
He couldn't say how long the U.S. military would remain in Iraq or whether the troop strength would fall below 100,000 by the end of President Bush's term, as Gates has previously proposed.
None of the military leaders spelled out how the strategy would change if the lull in violence ends or if the Iraqi forces cannot maintain security. In either scenario, U.S. forces would have to secure neighborhoods and root out armed factions.
So far, the first of five combat brigades has departed, with four others set to leave by July. By early summer, U.S. troop strength is to fall to 15 combat brigades, or roughly 130,000 troops, approximately the level before the troop surge began last February.
Odierno said Thursday that the U.S. will continue to pay roughly 175,000 "concerned local citizens" to patrol their neighborhoods $375 a month until at least the end of the year. And he said Iraqi forces likely can't control all of Iraq's 18 provinces until the end of the 2008 at the earliest.
On Capitol Hill on Thursday, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, the commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq, told the House Armed Services Committee that Iraqi security forces could reach 580,000 by the end of the year. But he predicted that the Iraqi troops couldn't protect their country without assistance for another decade.
Not everyone welcomed the suggestion of a long-term presence in Iraq. During Dubik's testimony, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., asked, "Does that mean we are going to be there forever?"
Dubik said no, but he couldn't say when U.S. troops could leave Iraq for good.