WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon cannot sustain its current force levels in Iraq beyond next summer, effectively giving the Bush administration and the Iraqi government until the middle of 2008 to capitalize on recent security improvements before the US military must draw down its forces, according to US military officials and foreign policy analysts.
When the 15-month combat tours end for the nearly 30,000 additional US troops President Bush sent to Iraq earlier this year to secure the country, the Army will be unable to replace them without damaging morale or troop readiness, senior Army officials say. Those forces will complete their tours during the spring and summer of 2008, according to Army deployment schedules.
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Keeping 160,000 troops in Iraq beyond the middle of next year would require the Army to reduce further the amount of time troops spend at home -- already scaled back from two years to less than 12 months in some cases -- before sending them back to the combat zone. But Army Secretary Peter Geren, the service's top official, re cently said he sees "no possibility" of extending the duty tours of US troops beyond 15 months.
These are the critical on-the-ground constraints as the White House and Congress prepare to receive a much-anticipated September progress report, which will probably fuel the debate over the war. The practical limits on current troop deployments have led military officials and analysts to warn that there will be a window of less than 12 months for the military to show sustained, and sustainable, success -- and for the Iraqi government to fashion a political settlement between warring factions.
By then, they said, the White House will have little choice but to phase down the American military commitment in Iraq.
"The units they were able to bring in [for the surge] are really the only units that were available," said John Ballard, a retired Marine colonel who is a professor of strategy at the National War College in Washington. "So we have this period while they are on the ground to make maximum use of available forces. It's a numbers issue."
Many military officers and Pentagon advisers said they believe the surge strategy has had a positive impact in Baghdad and, if sustained, could provide the muchneeded "breathing room" Bush contends the Iraqi government needs for competing Iraqi factions to reach a viable power-sharing agreement.
Relying on the additional infantry and airborne units, US commanders this summer redeployed forces in a ring around Baghdad and its suburbs. Their mission is to clear strongholds of Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda and Shia Muslim militias.
US and Iraqi troops, operating out of "joint security stations," have for the first time entered some neighborhoods that were staging grounds for insurgent attacks. The joint forces are attempting to disrupt key nodes along a sophisticated supply network for explosives, weapons, and other equipment used to mount deadly attacks inside the capital.
As these "belts" around the city have been seized and held, officers in Iraq have seen the number of sectarian attacks decrease, according to military analysts briefed in recent days on official statistics from the US command in Baghdad. For example, the number of reported sectarian killings in the capital have been cut in half, from about 1,000 a month to roughly 500 since the surge began in earnest this summer, they said.
Military officials also point to the Sunni tribes' decision to take up arms against Al Qaeda extremists, who have tried to impose their fundamentalist views on a largely secular Iraqi population.
The top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker are scheduled to deliver their progress report to Congress in mid-September. It is likely to intensify the contentious debate between the White House and many in Congress over the Iraq war and whether to bring the troops home.
A series of other official reports on Iraq will also become public next month, including an independent assessment of Iraqi security forces. But there is little doubt among military leaders about when the surge will have to end.
In a briefing earlier this month to reporters at the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, deputy commander in Iraq, said he supported maintaining the bolstered troop presence until August 2008. But he acknowledged that even if the United States wanted to, it would be nearly impossible to sustain it beyond that, questioning whether "there's anybody to backfill those units" that leave Iraq at the end of the 15-month tour.
Odierno added, "One thing we've dedicated to our soldiers is that you will not be here longer than 15 months."
Still, some specialists insist there is a real opportunity between now and next summer to give the Shia-led Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki, enough time, security, and stability to broker a power-sharing agreement with the Sunnis and Kurds.
"Consolidating the gains depends on whether we keep the surge forces there for six months to a year," said Kimberly Kagan, director of the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative-leaning Washington think-tank. Kagan recently returned from a factfinding tour of Iraq to assess the progress of the surge.
Others, however, said they are concerned about the unintended consequences of the surge, which has been focused primarily on Baghdad and the surrounding areas. More remote parts of Iraq -- including some that had been secure -- have become more violent as insurgents are driven from the capital, according to specialists.
"In the six months the surge has been underway, we have lost about 40 percent of the country to Shia factions," said Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies. "We can't maintain a permanent presence . . . in Karbala and Najaf. The British have been pushed down to three meaningless enclaves."
Even the security of Baghdad could be lost if the Iraqi government cannot come to terms, Cordesman added.
"The surge isn't over when Petraeus and Crocker come to Washington," added Ballard. "It will last at least eight more months, and that is the time when we have to see significant improvements."
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.