RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And now we turn to the question about U.S. troop levels in Iraq. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, tells NPR that fighting between the Iraqi army and the country's most powerful Shiite militia could potentially slow down 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's scheduled to last through July. NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz spoke with Admiral Mullen at the Pentagon last night and has this report.
GUY RAZ: The fighting in southern Iraq is still primarily between Iraqis. There's only marginal U.S. and British involvement according to U.S. 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.
Admiral MICHAEL MULLEN (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff): Well, I think we're a long way from any additional forces coming from outside the country at this point in time.
RAZ: Admiral Mullen and the Joint Chiefs met with the president at the Pentagon on Wednesday to offer their perspectives on Iraq policy. Mullen says he's signed on to General David Petraeus's recommendation that come August no further withdrawals should take place for some time.
Adm. MULLEN: The idea of a period for consolidation and evaluation is out there and I'm very supportive of that.
RAZ: 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. Come August, the total U.S. troop presence in Iraq will number 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, the ones happening before August. Here's Admiral Mullen.
Adm. MULLEN: 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 requirement, you know, 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.
RAZ: Now, if the current round of fighting subsides and the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq go ahead as planned, Mullen says he's now exploring the idea of shifting troops to Afghanistan, an effort he says, that is vastly under resourced.
Adm. MULLEN: And so should we be in a position where more troops are removed from Iraq, the possibly of sending additional troops there where we need them clearly, certainly it's a possibility, but it really is gonna be - it's gonna be based on availability of troops. I don't - we don't have a lot of troop - we don't have troops particularly in brigade combat team size sitting on the shelf ready to go.
RAZ: One of his priorities is to shorten army deployments from the current 15 months to 12.
Adm. MULLEN: Should conditions permit, I want to move to 12 months as rapidly as we can.
RAZ: Which should happen, according to a senior official, sometime later in the fall. As Admiral Mullen marks his first six months as chairman, he's keeping one eye on the future. His two-year term as chairman means he'll be working for the next President as well.
Adm. MULLEN: 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.
RAZ: Would you feel comfortable today recommending a withdrawal - a large scale withdrawal beginning soon?
Adm. MULLEN: I've indicated more than once that I think that a precipitous withdrawal in Iraq, one that would create a chaotic outcome, would be of great concern to me.
RAZ: That position could put him at odds with two of three people he might soon call commander-in-chief.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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