The top military general in Iraq hinted to ABC's Martha Raddatz that next week's much-anticipated report on the status of the troop surge in Iraq would include a recommendation for troop reduction in March, if not sooner, to avoid a strain on the Army.
"The surge will run its course. There are limits to what our military can provide, so, my recommendations have to be informed by — not driven by — but they have to be informed by the strain we have put on our military services," Gen. David Petraeus said in the interview at Camp Victory in Baghdad. "That has to be a key factor in what I will recommend."
While he would not get specific about the recommendations that he gave to President Bush during a surprise visit to Iraq yesterday, when Raddatz asked if March would be the time for a drawdown to avoid further strain on the military and even longer deployments, he answered by saying, "Your calculations are about right."
A military official told ABC News that a small drawdown could begin as soon as December, with further reductions every 45 days until the troop numbers are once again down to 130,000 or more from the current 164,000 troops.
Petraeus will present his assessment to Congress next week, with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, and said he is not feeling pressure from the political debate to present a rosy picture of the war. He is prepared to present their findings, and let those in Washington decide how to proceed.
"This is not Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus who will decide what is to be done about Iraq. This will be a decision made at two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."
Still, his name is constantly mentioned, as the Iraq debate remains high on the political agenda, and those in Washington appear to be looking to him for direction on the war.
He said it feels like an "out-of-body experience" to be at the center of the discussion. "I mean, you don't feel like the guy they're talking about. I feel like a battalion or brigade commander — still, at least I'd like to think that," he said. "And so, in that regard, you're sort of looking down on this guy who's sort of carrying out the duties."
Since Bush ordered to send more troops to the Baghdad area last January, the president has asked lawmakers to wait for the Petraeus assessment before they make decisions about future troop levels.
Petraeus said that while it is still "very dangerous" in Iraq and the insurgents remain "capable" of carrying out what he called barbaric attacks, he believes that this summer the surge has produced an "initiative, in general, against al Qaeda, which is a change, and that is an important change.
"Eight of the past 11 weeks have seen the number of incidents, the number of attacks, come down, and to the point that they reached a level that's about the lowest in well over a year, I think," he said. "Civilian casualties [are] still certainly too high. But again, pretty substantial progress, and certainly, trending very much in the right direction."
He specifically points to the progress in al Anbar Province, which was once an al Qaeda hotbed.
"That was the result, not of military actions, certainly, alone. It was the result of, really, a political shift where the population led by the sheiks of major tribes decided to reject al Qaeda and its Taliban-like ideology, and the extremist behavior that they have come to associate with it," Petraeus said.