The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, says the fighting between the Iraqi army and the country's most powerful Shiite militia could potentially slow the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq.
The total number of U.S. troops there is declining by about 4,000 a month, a reduction that is scheduled to last through July. Mullen says he has signed on to a recommendation by Gen. David Petraeus — the top U.S. commander in Iraq — that starting in August, no further troop withdrawals should take place for some time
The fighting in southern Iraq is still primarily between Iraqis. There is only marginal U.S. and British involvement, according to military officials. And so far, the U.S. military has no plans to send its own troops in large numbers to help reinforce the Iraqi army.
"I think we're a long way from any additional forces coming from outside the country at this point in time," Mullen says.
He and the Joint Chiefs met with President Bush at the Pentagon on Wednesday to offer their perspectives on Iraq policy — including Petraeus' recommendation on halting troop withdrawals temporarily in August.
"The idea of a period of consolidation and evaluation is out there, and I'm very supportive of that," Mullen says.
But how long that period will last isn't clear. And some senior military officials privately say a few weeks — even months — won't be long enough to determine whether fewer troops in Iraq can maintain an acceptable level of stability.
By August, the total U.S. troop presence in Iraq will number approximately 140,000. And, according to one military official, it's likely to stay that way into 2009.
In fact, the latest fighting in southern Iraq could actually slow down the current pace of troop withdrawals taking place before August.
"We're keeping a very close eye on it, and we're very serious about conditions on the ground driving the outcomes here in terms of force rotations, force requirements, all those things, and this is clearly a place where conditions on the ground will make a difference about what happens in the future as well," Mullen says.
If the current round of fighting subsides and the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq go ahead as planned, Mullen says, he is exploring the idea of shifting troops to Afghanistan — an effort that he says is vastly under-resourced.
"Should we be in a position where more troops are removed from Iraq, the possibility of sending additional troops [to Afghanistan] — where we need them, clearly — certainly it's a possibility," Mullen says.
"But it's really going to be based on the availability of troops. We don't have troops ... sitting on the shelf, ready to go."
One of his priorities is to shorten Army deployments from the current 15 months to 12 months.
"Should conditions permit, I want to move to 12 months as rapidly as we can," Mullen says.
A senior official says that should happen sometime later in the fall.
As Mullen marks his first six months as chairman, he is keeping one eye on the future. His two-year term as chairman means he'll be working for the next president as well.
"I will be here on the 21st of January, and just like this president, my expectation is I'll give the next president my best military advice," he says.
But Mullen's position on a large-scale withdrawal could put him at odds with two of three people he might soon call commander in chief.
"I've indicated more than once that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq — one that would create a chaotic outcome — would be of great concern to me," Mullen says.