BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The U.S. military commander in Iraq said on Monday that security conditions would determine whether he makes recommendations for further troop withdrawals in the coming months.
The comments by General David Petraeus came a day after The New York Times reported the Bush administration was already considering more troop cuts beginning in September.
There are some 146,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, down from a peak of 170,000 in 2007 when President George W. Bush ordered five additional combat brigades to Iraq to try to drag the country back from the brink of civil war.
The last of those extra brigades has already begun leaving Iraq and will have completed its withdrawal this month.
“We are conducting a continuous assessment of the situation … and should the conditions allow it, we will make additional recommendations, perhaps in the latter part of the summer, about additional reductions,” Petraeus told a news conference.
Petraeus is expected to make his recommendations on future troop levels in a report to the U.S. Congress in September.
U.S. troop levels in Iraq is a key issue in November’s presidential election battle between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. McCain supports the Bush administration’s current strategy, while Obama wants a timetable for withdrawal.
Violence in Iraq has fallen dramatically mainly due to the U.S. troop buildup and a rebellion by Sunni Arab tribal leaders against al Qaeda and anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s ceasefire.
“The number of attacks in Iraq now each week is at the lowest it has been since March 2004,” Petraeus said.
NEEDS IN AFGHANISTAN
The New York Times, citing administration and military officials, said the additional troop withdrawal plan stemmed partly from the need for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan to fight the rising insurgency by the Taliban and other fighters.
No final decisions had been made, but up to three combat brigades in Iraq could be withdrawn, or slated for withdrawal, by the end of the administration in January, the Times said.
Iraq’s own military confidence has grown in recent months following a series of offensives across the country.
This has coincided with Iraqi demands for a U.S. troop withdrawal timetable as part of talks on a deal to provide a legal basis for U.S. forces to stay once a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
Speaking with Petraeus at the news conference, Iraqi Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassim declined to be drawn on details of any withdrawal timetable, but said the Iraqi army was getting stronger.
“We are on our way towards a thorough security capability,” Jassim said.
There is strong domestic pressure in Iraq to set dates for a withdrawal of U.S. forces. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s political opponents will also likely try to exploit the issue of an undefined U.S. troop presence in local elections this year.