The Bush administration is considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq beginning in September, according to administration and military officials, raising the prospect of a far more ambitious plan than expected only months ago.
Such a withdrawal would be a striking reversal from the nadir of the war in 2006 and 2007.
One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other fighters have intensified their insurgency and inflicted a growing number of casualties on Afghans and U.S.-led forces there.
More American and allied troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May and June, a grim trend that has continued this month.
Although no decision has been made, by the time President Bush leaves office on Jan. 20, at least one and as many as three of the 15 combat brigades now in Iraq could be withdrawn or at least scheduled for withdrawal, the officials said.
The desire to move more quickly reflects the view of many in the Pentagon who want to ease the strain on the military but also to free more troops for Afghanistan and potentially other missions.
“As the Iraqi security forces get stronger and get better, then we will be able to continue drawing down our troops in the future,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday. “And I think that this transition of control and of responsibility, primary responsibility for security is a process that's already well under way and based on everything that I'm hearing will be able to continue.”
Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq who will soon take over as the commander of the U.S. Central Command, has already begun the review of security and troop levels. He and Bush promised in April that such a review would take place. Petraeus is expected to be more cautious than some policymakers in the administration and at the Pentagon might like. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing military planning, said he was more likely to recommend a smaller reduction.
One senior administration official cautioned that the president, who will have the final say, would be reluctant to endorse deep or rapid reductions if they jeopardized his goal of establishing a stable and democratic government in Baghdad.
Still, there is broad consensus in Washington and Baghdad that more U.S. forces can now leave Iraq and that more are needed in Afghanistan.
“There hasn't really been any discussion of numbers, and it's definitely based on conditions on the ground,” a military officer in Baghdad said. And conditions, he went on, “are a lot more favorable than in December or April or even two months ago.”
The Pentagon has previously signaled that commanders wanted additional troops in Afghanistan – as many as 10,000 more than the roughly 32,000 there now – but with two wars seriously straining the Army and Marines in particular, officials have struggled to produce the extra forces.
A reduction of combat brigades in Iraq would free up additional troops that could instead be sent to Afghanistan, though officials said that no additional forces would go until next year, when fighting is expected to intensify with the arrival of spring.
Gates has already extended the deployment of a force of 3,200 Marines in southern Afghanistan by one month, essentially until winter arrives and closes many of the country's mountain passes and remote villages.
The Pentagon also announced the redeployment of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its support ships from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea to provide what one official described as greater air power and surveillance for the mission in Afghanistan until next spring.