U.S. troop levels in Iraq will likely stay around the 133,000 mark in the coming months even if an Army brigade or two is cut from the current number of 15 total combat brigades, defense officials say.
The officials said Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, may decide he does not need a replacement brigade for one going home. Yet the overall force level will likely stay the same because new training teams are entering the country to embed with units of the Iraq Security Force (ISF).
Gen. Casey is also periodically tapping an Army "call-forward" brigade of about 4,000 soldiers in Kuwait for periodic duty in Iraq, most recently in Baghdad. Such moves, when coupled with the influx of trainers, also increases the overall force level.
Still, Pentagon planners hope to see the actual combat brigade numbers decrease from 15 in the coming months. Even though the force level would remain the same, such a trade-off means fewer American troops are in direct combat and more are in the training mission.
"The broad message is the numbers are going to fluctuate even if the brigade numbers come down," one senior official said. "Brigades will likely continue to come down, but it won't mean all the numbers will come down. The bottom line is fewer brigades means less direct combat for American troops."
The 15 combat brigades are down from 20 during Iraq's elections last year, and about 6,000 U.S. military personnel embedded with Iraqi units.
The big question is whether Gen. Casey sometime this summer will recommend to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and President Bush a larger troop reduction, which could begin this fall. Officials said Gen. Casey had not made that recommendation as of last weekend.
The command has been waiting for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to name a unity government before recommending any drawdowns. That task is now nearly completed. But the new government is not yet fully able to deal with the security issues because the key posts of defense and interior ministries remain vacant.
Gen. Casey's planning staff constantly reviews force levels. They look at the timetable for when Army and Marine units are due to leave to see whether that is an appropriate time to replace it.
"Casey is mindful of when units are supposed to rotate in," said the official. The source said Gen. Casey might conclude this summer that "I don't think we need to send a replacement in right away."
That's just what happened in April, when the general decided to put on hold a brigade in Germany that was preparing to come to Iraq.
The withdrawal plan is contingent on the 260,000-strong ISF taking over more counterinsurgency missions.
A new test awaits the emerging force: the restive town of Ramadi in Anbar province, which is not fully in control of the coalition and is becoming a new safe haven for terrorists.
The U.S. command has decided it will be the ISF, not U.S. forces, who will lead a campaign to retake the city.
"It isn't a situation that we can resolve. ... The Iraqis have got to take the lead in solving this one," said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the Pentagon's deputy director for regional operations.