The Pentagon is planning to withdraw up to a third of the 160,000 US troops in Iraq by the end of next year, barring serious deterioration of security.
The first three of the 18 combat brigades in the country could be pulled out early next year if the 15 December parliamentary elections go relatively smoothly. The speed of the pull-out would depend on whether newly trained Iraqi forces can shoulder a greater responsibility for security.
The disclosure, in The Washington Post, is further proof that despite President George Bush's insistence that the US will "stay the course" in Iraq, growing domestic opposition to the war is making a substantial force reduction all but inevitable.
Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, said yesterday that US forces were "unlikely to be needed in their present numbers for all that much longer ".
Other members of the US-led coalition, including Britain, Italy and South Korea, have also indicated that they intend to reduce their contingents in 2006. There are 22,000 non-US coalition troops in Iraq, 8,500 of them British.
The continuing presence of US forces has become the central element in the bitter national debate over the war, especially after last week's call by John Murtha, the veteran Democratic congressman, former US Marine, and military hawk, that US forces be withdrawn without delay.
Their presence had become part of the problem in Iraq, not part of the solution, an emotional Mr Murtha told reporters. He made clear he had a six-month timeframe in mind, but his plea stunned the White House, and provoked a storm on Capitol Hill. Only a tiny anti-war fringe in Congress favours an immediate, unconditional US departure from Iraq, and a House resolution to that effect was defeated by 403-3. But with the US death toll above 2,100 and discontent at Mr Bush's handling of the war increasing daily, both Democrats and Republicans are leaving no doubt that something must be done, and soon.
Last week's Senate resolution, passed by a bi-partisan 79-19 majority, rejected a fixed timetable for withdrawal, but demanded a fuller, regular accounting from the White House on how it intended to "complete the mission" in Iraq. The senators insisted that 2006 must be a year of "significant transition", when Iraqi forces take the lead in ensuring security. This should "create the conditions" for a phased " redeployment", withdrawal of US troops.
The critical moment may be next month's parliamentary elections in Iraq. If they are successful, the US could declare victory and start to leave, claiming it has met its basic goal of replacing Saddam Hussein's regime with a united, sovereign Iraq and a democratically elected government.
One idea gaining ground is to move some forces to Kuwait or offshore in the Gulf. This might reduce resentment of the US as an occupiers, but allow Washington to beef up forces in Iraq, if necessary. But even that will require more Iraqi troops. The Pentagon says up to 210,000 Iraqis are being trained. But critics say fewer than 1,000 can operate against insurgents, without US help.
Alliance in retreat
By far the largest contingent in Iraq, the US could withdraw up to a third of its 160,000 troops in the next 12 months.
It is unlikely that British forces, presently numbering around 8,400, will be withdrawn soon. There are plans to deploy more to compensate for countries that have left.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has said withdrawal of its 2,800-strong Garibaldi Brigade troops could occur by the end of 2006.
Wants to cut its 3,260-strong Zaytun Unit by about 1,000 while extending its deployment in Iraq by another year. Has the third-largest military presence in Iraq.
Reduced its troops from 2,500 after the Iraqi elections in January. The remaining 1,500 could be withdrawn by the end of this year.
Plans to pull out its 550 troops in 2006, although the government has not laid firm plans and may stay on if requested.Reuse content