President Barack Obama is expected to order all U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq by August of next year, administration officials said, closing the door on a war that has led to the deaths of at least 4,250 members of the U.S. military.
The pullout recommended by Obama's security advisers would free up troops and resources for the war in Afghanistan, where Obama has said the threat to national security is acute. The Iraq withdrawal would be completed 18 months from now.
"We are now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars, and I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war," Obama said in his address to Congress on Tuesday.
An announcement could come as early as this week, a senior White House official said Tuesday, adding that Obama has not yet approved the final details. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement was not yet planned, said Obama could discuss Iraq during a trip to North Carolina on Friday.
Obama built enormous grass-roots support for his White House bid by promising a quick end to the unpopular Iraq war. His 16-month withdrawal plan, based on removing roughly one brigade a month, had been predicated on commanders determining that it would not endanger U.S. troops left behind or Iraq's fragile security.
Officials said that upon entering the White House, Obama requested a range of options from his top military advisers, asking for plans ranging between 16 to 23 months.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had recently forwarded three withdrawal alternatives for Obama's consideration — 16, 19 and 23 months, the longest an alternative preferred by Iraqi officials and some of Obama's Iraq-based generals. The 19-month plan, which was selected, was pegged to his January inauguration.
Other senior military officials were more sanguine about a quicker pullout. Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who just left his job overseeing U.S. operations in Anbar Province, said Tuesday that violence there has dropped to an almost "meaningless" level over the past year. Kelly told reporters Tuesday most U.S. forces in Anbar could have pulled out months ago.
The emerging plan now leaves Obama two months off his campaign pledge, and with between 30,000 and 50,000 troops still in Iraq to advise and train Iraqi security forces and to protect U.S. interests.
The residual force would include intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, including unmanned aircraft, according to two administration officials and a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been made public.
The complete withdrawal of American forces will take place by December 2011, the period by which the U.S. agreed with Iraq to remove all troops.
About 142,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, roughly 14 brigades, about 11,000 more than the total in Iraq when President George W. Bush announced in January 2007 that he would "surge" the force to put down the insurgency. He sent an additional 21,000 combat troops to Baghdad and Anbar province.
Although the number of combat brigades has dropped from 20 to 14, the U.S. has increased the number of logistical and other support troops. A brigade is usually about 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
Congress has approved more than $657 billion so far for the Iraq war, according to a report last year from the Congressional Research Service.
As the Obama White House prepared to address the Iraq pullout, the man Obama defeated for the White House challenged suggestions by administration officials that the United States should lower its expectations in Afghanistan.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., insisted in remarks prepared for a speech Wednesday that Afghanistan could be turned around with sufficient resources.
In a speech planned at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, McCain said the United States should brace itself for violence in Afghanistan that worsens before it gets better.
McCain said that while "some suggest it is time to scale back our ambitions in Afghanistan," the U.S. should start spending more on development to keep Afghans from being seduced by the Taliban.
But McCain also echoed recent cautions from Obama, Gates and Mullen that the Afghan conflict would be hard going in the coming months.
"The scale of resources required to prevail will be enormous, and the timetable will be measured in years, not months," said McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A recent classified Pentagon report urged Obama to shift the military strategy in Afghanistan to de-emphasize democracy-building and concentrate more on targeting Taliban and al-Qaida sanctuaries inside Pakistan with the aid of Pakistani military forces.