WASHINGTON The United States will withdraw most of its troops from Iraq by August 2010, 19 months after President Barack Obama's inauguration day, according to administration officials who expect Obama to make the announcement this week.
The withdrawal plan would fulfill one of Obama's central campaign pledges, albeit a little more slowly than he promised. He said he would withdraw troops within 16 months, roughly one brigade a month from the time of his inauguration.
The U.S. military would leave behind a residual force, between 30,000 and 50,000 troops, to continue advising and training Iraqi security forces. Also staying beyond the 19 months would be intelligence and surveillance specialists and their equipment, including unmanned aircraft, according to two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plan has not been made public.
A further withdrawal would take place before December 2011, when the U.S. has already agreed with Iraq that it would remove all American troops.
A senior White House official said Tuesday that Obama is at least a day away from making a final decision. He further said an announcement on Wednesday was unlikely, but Obama could discuss Iraq during a trip to North Carolina on Friday.
There are currently 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, roughly 14 brigades. That is still about 11,000 above the total in Iraq when former 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 upped the number of logistical and other support troops. A brigade is usually about 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
Obama's 16-month campaign withdrawal promise was based on a military estimate on what would be an orderly pace of removing troops, given the logistical difficulties of removing so many people and tons of equipment, a U.S. military official said.
The White House considered at least two other options to withdraw combat forces one that followed Obama's 16-month timeline and one that stretched withdrawal over 23 months, the AP reported earlier this month.
The 19-month strategy is a compromise between commanders and advisers who are worried that security gains could backslide in Iraq and those who think the bulk of U.S. combat work is long since done.
As of Monday, at least 4,250 members of the U.S. military had died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. More than 31,000 have been injured.
Congress has approved more than $657 billion so far on the Iraq war, according to a report last year from the Congressional Research Service.
In recent months some U.S. commanders have spoken more optimistically about prospects for reducing the force. Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who commands U.S. forces in central and southern Iraq, told reporters earlier this month that he believed the gains in stability in that area were now irreversible.