Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday said that U.S. troop levels in Iraq will dip below a base force of 138,000, the first in what is expected to be a string of reductions as local security forces take on more counterinsurgency missions next year.
Mr. Rumsfeld chose an audience of U.S. Marines and the town of Fallujah, where U.S. troops fought bloody street battles to capture the city, to make an announcement that could affect the 2006 congressional elections.
"President Bush has authorized an adjustment in U.S. combat brigades in Iraq from 17 to 15," said Mr. Rumsfeld, who is in Iraq conferring with commanders and visiting with troops.
"The effect of these adjustments will reduce U.S. forces in Iraq by the spring 2006 below the high, the current high of roughly 160,000 during the [Iraqi] election period, when it was bulked up and also below the 138,000 base line that had existed prior to the most recent election," he said.
Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, said, "It's just a start here. ... It's going to be measured in a gradual process here that's going to play out over the next year or two."
He said the public will not see the net reduction until March, when the command completes its yearly rotation of forces in and out of Iraq.
At that time, the total U.S. deployment should shrink to 130,000, he said.
Gen. Casey said the number of suicide bombings, the most lethal attacks by terrorists, stand at 16 this month compared with 60 in June. He attributed the downturn to better enforcement at the Syrian border, where most terrorists cross into Iraq.
Pentagon officials say the announcement means two brigades of about 7,000 troops will not deploy as scheduled to Iraq. Troop levels were already returning to the 138,000 base force set before the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
The administration for months has been signaling 2006 troop cuts, saying the move depended on successful elections and the continued maturation of the 210,000 Iraqi Security Forces in fighting bomb- and rocket-toting insurgents.
Democrats called for even faster troop cuts.
"This long overdue announcement is good news for our courageous men and women serving in Iraq, for their families, and for the American people," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who has called the Iraq war a "grotesque mistake."
"There are ways for the United States to improve security in Iraq, make the American people safer, and the Middle East more stable that do not require 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq," she said. "This reduction is a step in the right direction, which I hope will quickly be followed by others that will result in all U.S. combat forces being redeployed from Iraq next year."
The troop issue has emerged in Washington as a key political debate likely to influence the 2006 election. The Senate rejected a bid by Democrats to endorse a precise timetable for withdrawal, but did approve a resolution calling for a rapid transition in 2006 so Iraqis take on most of the fighting.
Then Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and a decorated Marine combat veteran, upped the ante by calling for a complete pullout. But the House then overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to do just that.
Mr. Rumsfeld said Gen. Casey, and his boss, Army Gen. John Abizaid, Central Command chief, recommended the reduction, and could propose more changes.
"They make recommendations as appropriate," he said. "Assessments, as I say, will be made periodically, depending on circumstances on the ground."
He said commanders are "trying to seek the proper balance between having a military footprint ... large enough to help the Iraqi people win their fight against the terrorists, but not a footprint so large and so intrusive as to antagonize a proud and patriotic people."
The two-brigade reduction translates into one staying home at Fort Riley, Kan., and the other remaining in Kuwait.
"We felt comfortable enough not to bring them in. We wanted something close enough that could react quickly if something happened that we needed it," Gen. Casey told reporters in Baghdad.