Obama to extend Iraq withdrawal timetable; 50,000 troops to stay

McClatchy Newspapers | February 27, 2009
By Steven Thomma

WASHINGTON Amid complaints from has own party that he's moving too slowly to end the war in Iraq, President Barack Obama will announce Friday that U.S. combat troops will be withdrawn by Aug. 31, 2010, but that as many as 50,000 Marines and soldiers would remain until the end of 2011. 

Obama will announce his plans during a visit with troops at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he'll also visit with Marines who are being deployed to Afghanistan, senior administration officials said.

As he moves to draw down the war in Iraq after six years and more than 4,200 U.S. dead, he's also moving to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. 

The 18-month timetable for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq is two months longer than he promised during his campaign. Aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak frankly said that military commanders wanted the extra time. "The president found that compelling," said one senior administration official.

The pace of the drawdown will be left to commanders and determined by events on the ground as well as politics in Washington. Although U.S. and Iraqi casualties have dropped sharply, and recent provincial elections were held without major incidents, it's not clear whether Iraq's rival factions and their militias have abandoned violence or are merely biding their time.

A key factor in the pace of the U.S. drawdown will be making sure that there are sufficient U.S. forces in Iraq to assure that national elections scheduled for December are peaceful, officials said. Another will be the speed with which Iraqi military and security forces gain the ability to maintain order without American help.

Under Obama's plan, a force of between 35,000 and 50,000 U.S. troops would remain in Iraq after Aug. 31, 2010, to train, equip and advise Iraqi forces, help protect withdrawing forces and work on counterterrorism. They'd remain until Dec. 31, 2011, the date on which the Bush administration agreed to withdraw all troops under a pact with Iraq.

That number, too, could depend on conditions in Iraq and on the need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made significant gains, and where national elections also are scheduled.

The plan to leave as many as 50,000 troops in Iraq after August 2010 upset several top Democrats in Congress, who want far fewer troops left after the August date.

"I'm happy to listen to the secretary of defense and the president, but when they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., before meeting with Obama at the White House.

Obama started reviewing options in mid-December, aides said, then "really began in earnest" after taking office. He met on Jan. 21 with top commanders, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. Central Command; and Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.