In perhaps another sign of the improving security situation in Iraq, an Army brigade slated to replace a departing unit this January has received orders not to deploy, defense officials told ABC News.
The move frees up an additional combat unit that could be sent to Afghanistan should the Obama administration decide that more troops are needed there as has been recommended by top U.S. military commanders.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved the "off-ramping" of the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division's yearlong deployment to Iraq earlier today. The brigade has not received additional orders to deploy elsewhere.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told Congress last month that by the end of October, U.S. troop strength there would be at 120,000. Not sending this combat brigade to Iraq should decrease U.S. troop numbers further to about 112,000 at the time of the crucial January elections.
Odierno has expressed a desire to keep as many U.S. troops in Iraq as possible to provide security for the election before continuing with the administration's drawdown in troop numbers to 50,000 by the end of next August. At the start of this year, there were 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Off-ramping the brigade means Odierno will be completing the accelerated drawdown for this year that he had long hinted might occur only if the security situation in Iraq remained stable.
For weeks, the Obama administration has been reviewing its strategy for the way ahead in Afghanistan and is considering a request for more troops.
ABC News has reported that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has recommended a troop option of 40,000 more troops, though he has also presented a low option of a minimal troop increase as well as a top option of as many as 80,000 more troops.
Gates said on ABC's "This Week" in late September that even if President Obama were to decide to send more troops to Afghanistan, the first of those units wouldn't be available until 2010.
"The reality is that, even if the president did decide to approve additional combat forces going into Afghanistan, the first forces couldn't arrive until January," he said.
Indications are that a decision on the McChrystal troop request is still weeks away.