After months of denying that it was even considering plans to withdraw some troops, the Bush Administration last week shed first light on a possible timetable for trimming America's presence in Iraq. Pushed by newly assertive politicians at home as well as an eyebrow-raising statement from Iraq's leaders, and with a view toward congressional elections next fall, senior Bush officials began openly debating just how fast a withdrawal might proceed.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who tends to carefully calibrate every public utterance, dispensed with Foggy Bottom's typically foggy nostrums. "I do not think that American forces need to be [in Iraq] in the numbers that they are now for very much longer," she told Fox News. Although Pentagon officials bristled at Rice's venturing into military policy, they too have started discussing in public just how steep the drawdown should be from the 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.
The Administration's willingness to discuss removing forces from Iraq, where more than 2,100 Americans have died, followed a sharply worded statement from Iraqi leaders at an Arab League meeting in Cairo last week. The gathering of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds not only demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops but also gave implicit support to the insurgency by calling resistance "a legitimate right," so long as it doesn't involve "terrorism and acts of violence" against civilians, institutions and houses of worship.
U.S. military commanders, who have long argued that troop reductions must depend on conditions on the ground, warn against any abrupt cutbacks. "A precipitous pullout would be destabilizing," says Army Lieut. General John Vines, the top ground commander in Iraq. And the Pentagon expects a spike in violence in the run-up to the Dec. 15 election for a new parliament. But the debate over a withdrawal, spurred in part by Democratic Representative John Murtha's call two weeks ago for an accelerated departure, is now out in the open. Here are some of the key questions going forward:
How serious is the troop-reduction plan?
There isn't one plan, but several, each containing various options for Army General George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq. Pentagon officials acknowledged last week that the number of U.S. troops could be cut to 100,000 by the end of 2006. But Casey will face two "decision points" next year--one in March, when he can fully assess the effects of the Dec. 15 election, the other in June, when major U.S. units have to be told if they will deploy.
At this stage, almost no one is talking about a rapid, large-scale troop drawdown. Inside the Pentagon, officers privately caution that troop levels could even rise if Iraqi security forces don't shape up as expected, if the insurgency grows more fierce or--of greatest concern--if civil strife evolves into full-fledged civil war. In fact, a senior Pentagon official tells TIME that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked his planners last week to make sure they have a contingency option if things go very badly in Iraq next year.