WASHINGTON – The U.S. will have about 40,000 troops in Iraq by the end of September, it turns out, not the much lower total of 30,000 that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen had first said on Tuesday.
Mullen cited the lower figure unexpectedly on Tuesday in an appearance at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sparking urgent news reports and questions for further explanation at a Pentagon press conference later in the day.
Recent Iraqi violence – and serious negotiations about what size and kind of U.S. force should remain in the country beyond the Dec. 31 deadline – had not altered the Pentagon’s plan to remove all troops by the end of the year, Mullen said.
“There’s no change,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
But late Tuesday evening, Capt. John Kirby, the chairman’s spokesman, emailed reporters this correction: “The Chairman spoke in error today when he said that U.S. force levels in Iraq would be down to about 30,000 by the end of this month. The actual estimated figure is nearer 40,000.”
“But the larger point he made is still valid: we are on track to meet the President's goal of withdrawing all American troops from Iraq by the end of the year. The Chairman regrets any inconvenience his error may have caused.”
The Pentagon held roughly 46,000 troops in country since last year, in order to keep as many forces there as long as possible. About 700 troops from a Texas National Guard unit began coming home earlier this month, the first sizable reduction to kick off the final drawdown.
Recent reports that the White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta were considering leaving as few as 3,000 U.S. troops past the deadline have caused rancor in Washington, particularly from conservative lawmakers who say that is too low to sustain the hard-won gains of the Iraq War.
Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff and former Iraq War commander, said too many troops would be “counterproductive.”
Panetta, at the press conference, said, “Those are ongoing discussions and it’s premature to determine what the size of the force will be, or if there’ll be any force at that time, because it’s all dependent upon negotiations with the Iraqis.”
“We’re in the middle of negotiations right now, so whatever you hear, the specifics are just not determined,” Mullen added. “For someone to say, ‘This is how the negotiations are going to come out,’ there is no one who can say that right now.”