Troop levels in Iraq likely to remain above 130,000

A U.S soldier patrols the streets of Baqouba.
A U.S soldier patrols the streets of Baqouba. Karel Prinsloo / AP

WASHINGTON — More than 130,000 U.S. troops are likely to remain in Iraq next summer after the withdrawal of five combat brigades, military officials familiar with U.S. deployments said Wednesday.

U.S. Iraq commander Army Gen. David Petraeus told Congress in testimony earlier this week that he would recommend that the number of combat brigades in Iraq be reduced by next July, and President Bush is expected to endorse that proposal in a nationally televised speech Thursday.

In his testimony, Petraeus never used the 130,000 figure that has been widely reported in the media. Instead, Petraeus said that he would recommend leaving 15 combat brigades in Iraq.

"We haven't figured out specific troop numbers at this time," said Col. Steve Boylan, Petraeus' spokesman. "We are focused on combat power."

Military officials familiar with troop deployments told McClatchy Newspapers, however, that as many as 140,000 troops would remain in Iraq, depending on the size of the brigades and how many soldiers remain to support them.

American troop strength was well above 130,000 before the surge began on Feb. 15, according to officials. Pentagon officials couldn't say whether any military units that were scheduled to be deployed in the next few months have been told that they'll remain home because of Petraeus' proposal.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress said they were planning to offer proposals next week that would speed a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that Petraeus' recommendation that decisions on further troop reductions wait until next year is "the definition of an open-ended commitment."

Levin declined to provide specifics on possible Democratic proposals, but he said Democrats are willing to modify their plans to attract more Republican support. The plans are expected to call for a change in the U.S. military's mission from combat in defense of Iraqis to a support role, such as training and counterterrorism.

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said that a bill he's sponsored that would increase rest periods between deployments will come up for a vote next week. The bill would require the Pentagon to give service members as much time at home as they've spent in Iraq or Afghanistan before they can be sent again. It also would reduce the number of troops available for deployment.

"I think," Webb said, that military officials "can effectively perform the missions in Iraq and still take care of the troops."

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., one of a few Republicans who have voted for withdrawal, anticipated Bush's speech by saying that many Republicans would find a "stay-the-course message disturbing and unsatisfactory."

"As long as we say to the Iraqi government, here's the keys to our military and foreign policy, they'll say, 'Thanks,'" Smith said.

White House officials provided few details Wednesday of what the president will say when he goes before the nation at 9 p.m. EDT. But he's expected to embrace Petraeus' recommendation and declare that his dispatch of an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq has worked.

"What does appear to be the case is that the counterinsurgency strategy is working, and it's the sort of thing that holds a great deal of promise," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.

It was unclear how 130,000 became the conventional wisdom for how many troops would be left in Iraq next summer. A search through transcripts of Monday's six-hour hearing before the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees turned up no references to the number, but it was widely reported in news stories about that hearing, included those written by McClatchy Newspapers.

In his testimony, Petraeus called for five of the 20 combat brigades in Iraq to leave by next July, bringing the number of brigades down to pre-surge levels of 15 combat brigades. He didn't say how the remaining 15 brigades would translate into troop numbers.

The first reference to 130,000 came during Tuesday morning's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker what leverage the U.S. would have with the Iraqi government if the U.S. left 130,000 troops in place. Crocker didn't repeat the number in his answer.

In the afternoon, Petraeus avoided the figure when Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asked about it.

"Well, correct me if I'm wrong," Nelson said. "I clearly got the impression this morning that you think what we will have is 130,000 of our U.S. troops over there by the end of next summer."

Petraeus responded: "Sir, what I have said is we will have 15 brigade combat teams, and then we'll have to shape what the rest of the force is at that time and determine whether — because we've actually had to bring some additional forces in above and beyond this because of detainee operations, IED (improvised explosive device) task forces and other things that are there. "

When the Pentagon announced that the surge had begun, there were approximately 137,000 troops in Iraq. Currently, there are more than 160,000.

Under Petraeus' plan, the U.S. would begin reducing the number of troops in September when a Marine Expeditionary Unit will end its tour of duty and not be replaced. Two Marine battalions also will end their deployments in Anbar province, officials said.

An Army brigade won't be replaced when it returns to the U.S. in December, though there were suggestions that military officials had already planned not to replace the unit before Petraeus announced his proposal.

In July, the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which had been scheduled to replace a brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division that's scheduled to return in December, announced that it wouldn't be ready to redeploy. The Army never announced which unit would go instead. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division, from Fort Hood, Texas, are still scheduled to end their tours in Iraq in December. Two brigades will be replaced.

Four other Army brigades are scheduled to leave next year and won't be replaced, according to the general's plan.

According to the plan, not only would the number of brigades drop, so would the number taking the lead during combat missions in Iraq. Currently, just over 10 brigades are taking the lead in Iraq. Once the drawdown begins, there would only be six, a chart presented by Petraeus showed.

The number of brigades partnering with their Iraqi counterparts would remain the same, around four.

(William Douglas contributed to this report.)