Task force to set pace of pullout

The Pentagon plans to set up a task force of senior U.S. and Iraqi officials that will set conditions for withdrawing substantial numbers of American troops from Iraq next year, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Up to this point, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said he would make such an important decision based on recommendations from his two main commanders in the region, Gen. John Abizaid of U.S. Central Command and Gen. George Casey Jr., who runs operations in Iraq. He will also consult with Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Now, however, the U.S.-Iraq alliance plans to seek the advice of Americans and Iraqis in Baghdad because officials realize the decision will be based on so many complex facts — a system of analysis Mr. Rumsfeld calls “metrics” — that a task force is needed.

The panel will set conditions that must be met before a sizable withdrawal and will give Iraqi officials a bigger say in the ultimate decision.

A defense official, who asked not to be named, said the task force will be led by Iraq’s national security adviser and include representatives from Gen. Casey’s staff and the U.S. Embassy. It will likely begin work next week and file its first report in 60 days.

The official said its job will be “to help determine when the security forces and ministries and their support functions will be capable of assuming responsibility for securing Iraq.”

The task force planning comes as Mr. Rumsfeld’s commanders are sending signals that they believe a U.S. drawdown from the current 138,000 troops can begin next spring. Gen. Casey on Wednesday talked of a “substantial reduction.”

Officials say two things must happen first: The interim Iraqi government must have a constitution drafted and on the ballot in October; and a permanent government must be elected in December.

The task force will look at metrics to try to derive when conditions are right. These metrics will include the operational readiness of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and also how well Iraqi defense, intelligence and interior ministries are functioning and whether they can support troops in the field.

Another factor in removing U.S. troops is the state of the insurgency. Now, the pro-Saddam Hussein Iraqis and foreign terrorists led by Abu Musab Zarqawi carry out about 60 attacks a day.

The ISF today stands at more than 170,000, although many personnel are not yet fully trained and not all deployed units are capable of operating independently of U.S. troops.

The Iraqi army has eight divisions made up of 29 brigades and 101 battalions.

President Bush is under pressure from some Democrats and a handful of Republicans to set a timetable for leaving Iraq. But the president and Mr. Rumsfeld repeatedly have said any withdrawal will be based on conditions, not a preset timeline that would send the wrong signal to the enemy.

On his trip to Iraq earlier this week, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters of how the U.S. military is shifting tactics.

He said: “One of the things we’re doing very successfully is we’re shifting our weight; the U.S. military has been shifting its weight away from essentially doing counterterrorism activity and security patrols to continuing to do heavy lifting in terms of the counter-insurgency and doing more and more of our work directly with Iraqi Security Forces. Not just training and equipping them, but operating with them and embedding our forces with them in ways that we are able to do more mentoring.”

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