The top U.S. general in Iraq will begin conducting a "reduction assessment" in June to judge whether fewer American troops will be required in the country next year, a military source said yesterday.
The source said the formal assessment would lead to a recommendation from Army Gen. George Casey, the top officer, to Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of the Central Command, and then to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"If all goes well, Casey is expected to recommend a reduction," the source said.
The Army is completing a yearly rotation of its forces in and out of Iraq and will do the same redeployments next winter. Gen. Casey must begin his assessment months in advance to give the Army time to identify and train units.
As an example, the 3rd Infantry Division last month replaced the 1st Cavalry Division in the Baghdad sector. If fewer troops are needed in 2006, 1st Cavalry might not need to bring all its brigades or tanks back to Iraq.
The Marine Corps switches out the 1st and 2nd Marine expeditionary forces every six months. A Marine expeditionary force can be mixed and matched to meet the mission.
There are about 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from the 151,000 needed for the Jan. 30 elections.
Since the historic balloting, Gen. Casey's command has seen what one officer called a "significant drop" in the number and lethality of attacks by an insurgency made up of Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, the nascent Iraqi security forces has taken on more missions.
The twin developments have prompted senior officers in Iraq to talk more openly about the prospect of reducing troop levels in 2006 if conditions continue to move in favor of the United States.
The military source described Gen. Casey and Gen. Abizaid as "upbeat."
At a press conference this week, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the mood among senior officers "cautiously optimistic."
On Sunday, Gen. Casey told CNN: "By this time next year ... assuming that the political process continues to go positively and the Sunnis are included into the political process and the Iraqi army continues to progress and develop as we think it will, we should be able to take some ... reductions in the size of our forces. Specific number is going to be based on the conditions of the Iraqi security forces and the security situation there."
Mr. Rumsfeld, asked about momentum in Iraq, said this week, "I worry about being excessively optimistic, myself. I kind of like to deliver rather than promise."