WASHINGTON — Top Defense Department officials testified Wednesday that the Bush administration's plan to withdraw some 20,000 U.S. troops from Iraq this summer will do little to relieve the stress on the Army and Marine Corps.
Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military was exhausted by the repeated deployments to Iraq.
Finding a way to reduce the amount of time troops are deployed to Iraq is critical, he said. Currently, soldiers are sent to Iraq for 15-month tours, and Marines serve seven-month stints, followed by seven months at home.
"The well is deep, but it is not infinite," Mullen said. "We must get Army deployments down to 12 months as soon as possible. People are tired."
Mullen and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appeared before the committee to discuss the administration's request for $588.3 billion in defense spending for the 2009 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
President Bush announced last year that the U.S. would reduce the number of American troops in Iraq by five combat brigades — about 20,000 people — during the first half of this year. U.S. troop strength in Iraq has hovered above 160,000 since June, when the military completed the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops as part of the so-called surge, which was intended to restore calm to Baghdad.
But security conditions will determine whether troop strength can be further reduced, officials have warned. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, is expected to report this spring whether there can be more troop reductions.
Mullen said he favored reducing the number of troops in Iraq "sooner rather than later" so that Iraq deployments could return to 12 months. But he said that decision hasn't been made.
Others at the Pentagon doubt that the U.S. will be able to reduce troop strength in Iraq to 100,000 for some time.
"We need some time to make an assessment" of the initial troop withdrawals, said a senior Pentagon official, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "We are not going to do a precipitous withdrawal again," he said, referring to past efforts to hand over security responsibility to Iraqi forces and withdraw U.S. troops.
Reducing U.S. troop strength to 10 combat brigades would hurt the United States' ability to conduct multiple operations in Iraq, said Jeffrey White, a military analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a center-right policy institute.
The number of brigades could become a key issue in the presidential campaign, as that number will determine what kind of defense posture the next president can mount.
If the U.S. maintains 15 combat brigades in Iraq — the pre-surge troop presence — it won't be able to mount major military operations in places such as Iran, Afghanistan or North Korea, White said.