Out Of Iraq By Summer 2010?

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President Obama is expected to announce plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by late summer 2010. Can the military achieve that goal without compromising security in Iraq?


Tomorrow, the president visits a Marine base in North Carolina. There, he's expected to offer details about his plan to bring American troops home from Iraq. While campaigning, Mr. Obama pledged to withdraw all U.S. combat forces within 16 months of taking office. Now, it appears getting troops home might take a bit longer. Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And Tom, you and others have been reporting that there's a new number now, 19 months to get combat troops out of Iraq. Why 19?

TOM BOWMAN: It's sort of cutting the difference between 16 months that he wanted during the campaign and 23 months; that was another option the Pentagon was looking at. So, it kind of looks like they're splitting the difference. And I think one reason is commanders on the ground in Iraq and those at the Pentagon will tell you that the peace over in Iraq is fragile. I mean, there's no question that violence is has gone down dramatically over the past of couple years, but they're still worried about it, so they still want to keep a large number of American forces here for as long as possible to make sure that this peace can hold. So, that's the reason for the 19 months.

COHEN: And if it is 19 months, that puts us at August of 2010. Can the military move combat troops out in that timeframe and still maintain order?

BOWMAN: Well, that's a big question. I don't think anybody can answer that right now, even commanders in Iraq. There are certain areas of the country that are still very violent, up around the northern city of Mosul; Kirkuk in the northern part of Iraq, there's still violence up there; around Baghdad, sporadic violence. But in the western part of the country, Anbar Province, which was - used to be one of the worst parts of the country, is actually now one of the best parts of it. The attacks have gone down. They're almost nonexistent there now. And the Marines, they tell me and they tell their commanders that they're actually bored out there; they don't really have anything to do.

COHEN: And to be clear, Tom, when the president talks about withdrawing combat troops, that doesn't mean all troops, correct?

BOWMAN: No. They're talking about keeping what they call residual forces in the country, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000, and people tell me they could be there for many years at that level. And it's also a question of semantics, I think. They say no more combat troops, but if you're a Marine or you're a soldier carrying a gun, you are in essence a combat troop. So, it really is - it's how you define it, too. But what we believe is and what they're saying is that those troops would be there to, let's say, go after remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, to help train the Iraqi army, and also to protect diplomats and also aide workers there in the country for a number of years.

COHEN: As we heard earlier, the Obama administration releases its budget today, and the administration has said it will now add the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the regular Pentagon budget. What does that mean?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know quite yet what that means. They've been funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with an emergency spending bill - it's called a supplemental - and it's been at least $100 billion per year over the last number of years. What we're being told now at the Pentagon - and it's still, you know, no one's really certainly exactly how this going to work - but they believe they'll put some of the cost from the supplemental, we don't know exactly how much, into the regular budget. But they'll still have something along the lines of a supplemental this year and maybe next. So, we don't know what that means yet. If they do put some of the costs into the regular Pentagon budget, the belief is that will crowd out other Pentagon programs, and you could see more Pentagon cuts in weapon systems like, you know, the F22, the Air Force's sophisticated warplane. So, again, it could lead to further Pentagon cuts in other areas.

COHEN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're very welcome.

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