WASHINGTON — After holding the overall number of troops in Iraq relatively unchanged for months, the U.S. is planning a major unit drawdown Wednesday with the departure of roughly 700 Texas-based soldiers who will hand over their headquarters command and not be replaced.
The soldiers departing Wednesday are from the Texas National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division, which staffed the headquarters of U.S. Division-South in Iraq, according to Col. Barry Johnson, U.S. Forces-Iraq spokesman. With their exit, the U.S. will close down that regional division and relinquish responsibilities for southern Iraq to U.S. Division-Central, currently staffed by the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division.
But as they prepare to exit, administration officials in Washington were denying a news report claiming the White House wants to keep fewer U.S. troops in Iraq beyond this year than previously believed. According to Fox News, the White House is considering keeping just 3,000 troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 deadline for nearly all servicemembers to be out of the country, per the existing bilateral security agreement between Washington and Baghdad. Previous news reports said the administration wanted to keep 10,000 troops in Iraq.
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the new report was not accurate.
“If the Iraqi government makes a request of us, we will certainly consider it,” he said, sticking with the U.S position and deferring to Baghdad.
Pentagon press secretary George Little also quickly dismissed the report, saying in an email, “No decisions on troop levels have been made.”
Despite the denials, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., released a joint statement strongly decrying any premature withdrawal of troops.
“We are deeply troubled by media reports that the Obama Administration has sharply reduced the number of U.S. troops it is proposing for the post-2011 security force in Iraq to approximately 3,000,” the statement said. “This is dramatically lower than what our military leaders have consistently told us over the course of repeated visits to Iraq that they require, and that is needed to support Iraq in safeguarding the hard-won gains that our two nations have achieved at such great cost.”
Roughly 45,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, Johnson said, fluctuating slightly all year as units have come and gone. Iraq War commander Gen. Lloyd Austin has said for months that he wanted to keep as many troops in Iraq for as long as possible to ensure security until this fall, before beginning a quick withdrawal to meet the Dec. 31 deadline.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are negotiating the extension of that deadline for an undetermined force of military trainers and troops that could engage in counterterrorism operations, including fighting. This summer, Iranian-backed militants attacked U.S. forces, while other extremists have conducted coordinated nationwide attacks on Iraqi security forces, government officials and civilians. While some Iraqi leaders have bluntly called for the U.S. to end their occupation, others have made it clear they want the American presence.
“Iraqi security forces are still not prepared to secure protection for Iraq,” Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said in a televised address this week.
Other Iraqi officials, according to an Associated Press report, said Americans had informed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the withdrawal had started.
“As far as I know, there has been no ‘official notification’ that the withdrawal has begun,” said U.S. Forces-Iraq spokesman Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan in an email.
Over the last two years, the U.S. has withdrawn 1.4 million pieces of equipment and handed over 49 bases from U.S. to Iraqi control, he said.
The U.S. maintains control of 43 bases, down from 505 in 2007.