The Pentagon's top military officer said Wednesday that he is likely to recommend further troop reductions in Iraq this fall.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that on his recent trip to Iraq, he found conditions had improved more than he expected.
“I won't go so far as to say that progress in Iraq from a military perspective has reached a tipping point or is irreversible – it has not, and it is not,” Mullen told a Pentagon press conference.
“But security is unquestionably and remarkably better. Indeed, if these trends continue I expect to be able early this fall to recommend to the secretary and the president further troop reductions,” he said.
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His remarks came in the midst of an election year in which presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have disagreed over U.S. strategy in Iraq with the war now in its fifth year.
The military buildup in Iraq that began more than 18 months ago has ended. In recent days, the 3rd Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade, the last of the five additional combat brigades sent in by President Bush last year, left the country.
Its departure marks the end of what the Pentagon calls the “surge.” And it starts the 45-day evaluation period that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told Congress he would need to assess the security situation and determine how many more troops he could send home.
There are still 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq – as many as 15,000 more than before the surge began.
There now are technically 13 Army and two Marine combat brigades in Iraq – the same as before the buildup – but the force is as much as 10 percent larger than it was in January 2007.
Military officials contend comparisons are not valid because a chunk of the remaining troop bulge is due to units that are overlapping, as two brigades begin moving out of Iraq, while their two replacements move in.
The overlap could add up to 6,000 soldiers.
Also, one of the units moving out, the 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, is much smaller than the one taking its place – the 4th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.