ARLINGTON, Va. — Thanks to progress against insurgents in northern Iraq, U.S. troops in the region could begin drawing down their ranks beginning in January and gradually reduce their numbers by half over the next 18 months, Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of Multi-National Division–North and the 25th Infantry Division, said Friday.

“I have provided plans and so forth to [Lt. Gen. Ray] Odierno that shows a plan that next year, given the continued progress that we are making, that we could have a reduction of forces in Multi-National Division–North during 2008,” Mixon told Pentagon reporters during a video teleconference from his headquarters in Mosul. “I currently have five or six brigades, depending on how you count the numbers and the types,” Mixon said.

Mixon did not attach a number to his estimate, but the Army’s combat brigades typically have about 3,500 troops on their rosters, which would mean Mixon has between 17,500 and 21,000 combat soldiers, plus support elements.

“I honestly believe that, given the enemy situation, as you move forward after about an 18-month period, you could probably reduce that by about half.”

The U.S. troops who remain, Mixon said, would continue to work with Iraqi security forces in “a training and assistance mode, have the capability to react and assist the Iraqi forces as required, and provide them those capabilities they don’t have, like attack aviation, Air Force fixed-wing support, and medical support, as they continue to grow and improve.”

Later in the day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters he has not heard of any definite troop reduction plans from military commanders in Iraq. Those decisions will be base on both the security situation in Iraq and working out a long-term agreement from the transfer of responsibility to Iraqi forces.

“Those questions are still in front of us,” he said. “So in terms of numbers of troops, we don’t know the answer to that at this point.”

In May, Mixon told Pentagon reporters he needed more troops to help control insurgents who were overrunning key cities in his area of control, in particular Diyala. Thanks to the “surge,” he got those troops, Mixon said, in the form of two Stryker brigades — bringing the total number of U.S. forces under his command to the equivalent of five or six brigades.

The fighting this year has been tough, but successful in MND-N, Mixon said.

“Now that the surge has reached its full strength, we are seeing definitive progress,” Mixon said.

Mixon said he is carefully watching the ongoing debate in the United States about whether, and how quickly, U.S. troops should withdraw from Iraq, and that while the discussion is an important one that needs to be talked about, it “troubles” him.

“It seems to me that we should first decide what we want the end state to be in Iraq, and how is that end state important to the United States of America, to this region and to the world,” Mixon said. “To me, that seems like the most important thing.”

Only after U.S. leaders are sure they know what they want that end state to look like, he said, should they work to “to determine how we are going to reach that end state, and how much time that will take.” Regardless, any drawdown of forces, Mixon said, “needs to be well thought-out. It cannot be a strategy that is based on ‘well, we need to leave.’ That’s not a strategy. That’s a withdrawal.” And “there will be consequences of a rapid withdrawal from Iraq,” Mixon said.

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