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Bush administration and military officials are considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq beginning in September, raising the prospect of a far more ambitious plan than expected only months ago, The New York Times reported Sunday.

One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other fighters have intensified their insurgency, the paper noted.

Although no decision has been made, by the time President Bush leaves office Jan. 20, at least one and as many as three of the 15 combat brigades in Iraq could be withdrawn or at least scheduled for withdrawal, the officials told the Times.

The most optimistic course of events would still leave 120,000 to 130,000 American troops in Iraq, down from the peak of 170,000 late last year after Bush ordered what became known as the "surge" of additional forces, according to the report.

Any troop reductions announced in the heat of the presidential election could blur the sharp differences between the presidential candidates over how long to stay in Iraq, but political benefit might go more to John McCain and Barack Obama, the Times wrote. McCain is an avid supporter of the current strategy in Iraq. Any reduction would indicate that that strategy has worked and could defuse anti-war sentiment among voters.

Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, has already begun the review of security and troop levels. He and Bush promised in April that such a review would take place, the Times reported.

Additionally, a forthcoming Pentagon-sponsored report will recommend an even steeper drawdown, Newsweek will report in its July 21 issue.

Expected to be completed in about a month, a 300-page report by a defense analysis group at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., will recommend that U.S. forces be reduced to as few as 50,000 by the spring of 2009, Newsweek reported.

The strategy is based on a major handoff to the increasingly successful Iraqi army, with platoon-size U.S. detachments backing the Iraqis from small outposts, with air support, according to the report, now online. The large U.S. forward operating bases that house the bulk of U.S. troops would be mostly abandoned, and the role of Special Forces would increase.

The report’s conclusions have been discussed inside Secretary Robert Gates’ Defense Policy Board, a body of outside experts, Newsweek reported. And they’ve found favor with some former members of the Iraq Study Group, such as former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta.

But Petraeus is said to oppose the recommendations, according to a Defense contractor who is privy to the discussions. Asked about the report, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told Newsweek that Gates "feels the most important military advice he gets is from his commanders on the ground." As the next head of Central Command, Petraeus will soon have responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan too, which could change his views on troop deployments and the new report, Newsweek noted.


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