Pace: Iraqi Military Suffers a Setback

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, says the number of Iraqi battalions able to fight independent of American support has dropped in recent months, despite increased U.S. efforts. Political pressure has grown in Congress for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

A senior U.S. commander in Iraq says he will suggest that a troop drawdown begin in the northern part of the country starting next January. General Benjamin Mixon made the comments just as two leading Republican senators drafted new legislation. It calls for a sharply limited U.S. mission in Iraq starting next year.

NPR's Guy Raz is at the Pentagon and he has our report.

GUY RAZ: A few months ago, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs, General Peter Pace, assured members of Congress that 10 Iraqi battalions - that's about 5,000 Iraqi troops - were fully operational, that they could carry out missions without any U.S. help - independently. And then yesterday, when the White House released its interim progress report on Iraq to Congress, well, that report mentioned in passing that there has been a recent decline in the number of Iraqi soldiers that can fight without U.S. help.

Well, the decline is actually dramatic. In fact, in all of Iraq today, according to the Pentagon, there are fewer than 3,000 Iraqi soldiers capable of doing their jobs without any U.S. guidance. General Pace says there's a number of reasons why.

General PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): As units operate in the field, they have casualties, they consume vehicles and equipment, it need to come out of the line to be resupplied just like our own units.

RAZ: Except, what General Pace didn't mention was that the number of Iraqi soldiers that are ready to independently take charge of their country's security. Well, that number is dwindling faster than the number of Iraqi troops being trained for that purpose. Now, back in March, the defense secretary, Robert Gates, told the Senate that General David Petraeus, who's the top ground commander in Iraq, would be able to say by around early summer whether the surge strategy was working. But, like others in the administration, the defense secretary is now insisting the country wait until September, when Petraeus will deliver his assessment to Congress.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): You know, I think we'll have to see in September where we are.

RAZ: Here in the Pentagon, the word September is becoming another way of saying no comment. Gates will not talk about what might happen after September. For now, it's all about September, which is why many members of Congress are skeptical over how much real progress can happen between now and September. Republican Senators John Warner and Richard Lugar are pushing for a drawdown to begin sometime toward the end of the year. And on the ground in Iraq, some U.S. commanders are already thinking about timeframes for a drawdown. Major General Benjamin Mixon, who commands a U.S. division north of Baghdad, told reporters earlier in the day that he'll recommend a drawdown begin early next year.

Major General BENJAMIN MIXON (Commander, 25th Division): I think that over time, in a very methodical and well thought out way, that we could have a reduction of force that could begin in January of 2008, take about 12 to 18 months.

RAZ: And ultimately, it could reduce the number of U.S. forces in northern Iraq by half, which could translate into more than 15,000 troops.

Guy Raz, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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