LIANE HANSEN, host:

In the past few days, military commanders in Iraq have been discussing the possibility of keeping troop levels at their current strength until next summer. Major General Rick Lynch, division commander in Iraq, recently suggested he'd need until, at least, next June to pacify his area of responsibility.

To tell us what this could mean for the men and women in uniform, NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz is on the line from Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. First of all, Guy, what are you doing there at Fort McCoy?

GUY RAZ: Well, I'm actually working on a story about Army reservists, Liane. And I'm embedded in the reserve unit that's about to leave for Iraq probably in the next week or so. It's the second time this unit has been mobilized for deployment, but it is the first time they're going to Iraq.

Now, interestingly, as we speak, here at Fort McCoy, thousands of Minnesota National Guardsmen are returning after a 22-month deployment. A lot of that time, of course, was spent in Iraq. And they're going to be spending the next two or three weeks here kind of decompressing before they can go back to their families.

HANSEN: You know, despite this whole debate on whether or not to sustain the troop surge, there is a timetable, right? For how long it can last.

RAZ: Right. Exactly. The bottom line is the military has to begin a drawdown around April of 2008. And the reason is simple; there simply isn't enough manpower to sustain it after that period of time because the Pentagon has instituted these very strict rules which govern how long a unit can be deployed and how much time they should be given out of theater - out of a combat area. So for example, if you're in the Army, you're deployed for 15 months and you should be given about two years off before your next deployment. So to sustain the current troop surge, it's going to be virtually impossible at 170,000 troops after April '08.

HANSEN: So they would not be able to maintain the current levels even if they decide to go through next summer? How will that work out?

RAZ: Well, the Pentagon has a couple of options. The first option, of course, is to change the rules, which Secretary Gates has said he doesn't want to do. But the second option, I think the likelier option, is basically - that depends more and more on the guard in reserve. The reserve was always though off as kind of the strategic reserve of the military. Well, not anymore. The Army Reserve is really considered a key part of the active duty Army. And it's very likely that the Pentagon is going to start to tap in to that well of manpower and if, in fact, they decide to sustain such high levels of troops in Iraq.

HANSEN: Guy, before you left for Fort McCoy, you were talking to your sources at Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. What are they saying about, you know, realistically, for those deadlines. For how long the surge can last?

RAZ: Well, there are really two debates. First on Capitol Hill, the debate lies primarily within the Republican party, both in the Senate and in the House. And what I'm hearing is that if in September, when General Petraeus' report comes out, Republicans are not entirely satisfied, they're going to start pushing for a drawdown around December. Because the fear among Republicans is they'll be hit at the ballot box if they don't do that.

Now, in the Pentagon, Sec. Gates also doesn't want to carry on the surge for any longer than he feels it's necessary to carry on. He and the Joint Chief Of Staff agree on that point. The question is whether commanders in Iraq will want to sustain it. And at that point, it's really the president who's going to have to make that call. He's going to have to decide whether to go with the commanders in Iraq or whether to go with his commanders in Washington - at the Pentagon.

HANSEN: NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Thank you very much, Guy.

RAZ: Thanks, Liane.

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