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Army combat tours could be reduced back to 12 months by the middle of this summer, the service’s top officer said Wednesday in Washington.

Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, said that as brigades added for the “surge” leave Iraq over the next several months, the tours could be reduced from the current 15 months.

A final decision would not be made “until I’m sure we’re not going back on that,” Casey said during a question and answer session with the Association of the United States Army.

The 15-month deployments were announced in April by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said they were designed to make sure that troops received a full 12 months at home following a combat deployment. The move was necessitated by the “surge” of more than 30,000 extra troops to Iraq last year.

The extended tours have put serious stresses on soldiers and family members and are often the main subject of questions fielded by senior Army officials. Army leadership repeatedly denied rumors this summer among soldiers that the Army would extend tours to 18 months.

During a visit to Iraq last month, Gates said that the return to 12-month tours could come by the end of this year.

In Wednesday’s comments, Casey said the reduction in combat tour length would be a result of both growing the Army and drawing down from 20 to 15 brigades in Iraq over the coming months.

On Thursday in separate news briefings, both Gates and Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq, said the plan to reduce the number of brigades is on track.

“I see us getting down to 15 brigades by this summer, I’m very confident about that,” Odierno said.

The active-duty Army is to grow by 65,000 troops by 2010, officials have said. That number would bring the Army from 42 to 48 brigades; roughly half of the 65,000 new troops have already been added.

Casey, who served as the top American commander in Iraq before assuming his current post, and Gates also cautioned that reducing tour lengths would depend on security conditions in Iraq.

Over the past several months, the levels of violence have fallen dramatically from their peaks in 2006, with Army officials attributing that to the “surge,” a cease-fire by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the alignment of Sunni tribes with American troops.

“The big question is when [do] you come off the 15 … and the answer is probably sometime around next summer,” Casey was quoted as saying in news reports.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is to deliver a recommendation this spring on any further drawdown of troops.

Stars and Stripes reporter Lisa Burgess contributed to this report.

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