Bush May Reduce Troops, But Gradually

Withdrawl of "surge" troops might isolate Democratic war critics, official says.

CRAWFORD, Texas, Aug. 18, 2007 — -- The Bush administration is expected to call for a gradual reduction of American troop levels in Iraq beginning next year, a move that falls short of the demands of critics in Congress seeking a major troop withdrawal.

President Bush will not finalize his plan until he gets a report from the top commander in Iraq next month, a White House spokesman said.

That report is to be based largely on recommendations submitted to the president by the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, who told ABC News today that he is "working hard" on it but has not yet submitted it to the White House.

But a consensus has developed to allow the nearly 25,000 "surge" troops to leave as their tours end, an administration official told ABC News on condition of anonymity because the report is not final.

The move would buy more time for the Iraqi government to take over.

However, White House officials concede that while Iraqi security forces are increasingly capable, the rest of the government has made disappointingly little progress on such political goals as unifying warring Sunni and Shiite groups.

By beginning the drawdown, the White House sees the chance to isolate anti-war Democrats and still maintain enough support in Congress to keep a major troop presence in Iraq, the administration official told ABC News.

The effort is aimed at isolating such critics of the war as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who have called for a rapid drawdown.

The president is likely to face an uphill battle, said Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who is now senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

"This change is really not a change; and you're going to get enough Republicans and Democrats to vote against what the president is trying to do -- but not enough to override a veto," Korb said.

The president, who is vacationing at his Texas ranch, has little alternative to a gradual exit. The Army's chief of staff says the military is straining to maintain current troop levels in Iraq.

"Today's Army is out of balance," Gen. George Casey told reporters at the National Press Club earlier this week. "The demand for forces exceeds the sustainable supply."

President Bush contends it's too soon to withdraw completely.

"The consequences for America and the Middle East would be disastrous," the president said last month in an address at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.

"In Iraq, sectarian violence would multiply on a horrific scale," he added. "Fighting could engulf the entire region in chaos. "We would soon face a Middle East dominated by Islamic extremists who would pursue nuclear weapons, who would use their control of oil for economic blackmail, and who would be in a position to launch new attacks on the United States of America."

Administration officials have concluded that leaves one option -- a gradual drawdown.

"The predictable drawdown will be something along the lines of cutting 10,000 to 20,000 troops in the coming months," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution who recently returned from Iraq, "and probably [there will] be somewhere in the range of 125,000 to 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by this time next summer."

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