Tuesday, March 16, 2010; 12:44 PM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States may leave a stronger-than-expected force structure in northern Iraq if the situation requires, even as it reduces troops to targeted levels, a top U.S. general said on Tuesday.
U.S. General David Petraeus, testifying before a Senate panel, confirmed plans to meet President Barack Obama's target of 50,000 U.S. troops by end-August, from about 97,000 today. All U.S. forces will withdraw by the end of 2011.
But he also noted that the situation in Iraq remained fragile, despite declining violence and high turnout in national elections, and said the U.S. military was still tinkering with plans on how best to administer the drawdown.
"There's a possibility we may want to keep an additional brigade headquarters, as an example, but then slim out some of its organic forces and some of the other organic forces elsewhere," Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, told lawmakers, adding such headquarters are key to facilitating engagement with Iraqis.
"And if indeed we think there's a particularly fragile situation, say in a certain area in the north, we might do that. And that's something we are looking at."
The comments follow U.S. media speculation, denied by Pentagon officials, that the military might try to slow the drawdown.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said there would have to be a "pretty considerable deterioration" in Iraq before recommending slowing the timetable for withdrawal.
Military analyst Kimberly Kagan said keeping an additional brigade headquarters -- only six were planned following the August drawdown -- would strengthen U.S. forces, help provide American liaisons to provincial governments and boost situational awareness in the north.
"(It) can help U.S. and Iraqi forces maintain stability and continue training efforts, even as troops draw down," said Kagan, at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Pentagon officials have made clear that U.S. troops who remain in Iraq come September 1, although technically in an "advise and assist" capacity, will still be capable of conducting military operations.
Even as regular forces withdraw, Admiral Eric Olson, who heads the U.S. Special Operations command, said: "It's my expectation that the level of Special Operations forces will remain about constant in Iraq."