President Obama is expected to announce as early as Friday that he will remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by August 2010, three months later than promised during his campaign, U.S. officials said.
Obama has not made a final decision on the matter, but it could come during a trip to give a speech in North Carolina on Friday, the officials said.
"He is approaching a decision on this very soon," said one official, speaking, as others did, on the condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made. A senior administration official said Tuesday night that Obama is "nearing a decision" but insisted that no final plans had been made.
The withdrawal timetable of about 19 months was one of several options outlined for Obama by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, including a faster schedule of 16 months and a slower plan of 23 months, one official said. "The risks are different with each option, and there are pros and cons of each one," he said.
"It's the president's desire to conduct a responsible drawdown that won't put at risk the gains and allows for the protection of the troops," he said.
In his address to a joint session of Congress last night, Obama said he and his national security team are "now carefully reviewing our policies in both wars, and I will soon announce a way forward in Iraq that leaves Iraq to its people and responsibly ends this war."
About 142,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, including 14 combat brigades of about 4,000 troops each and tens of thousands of support forces. The Obama withdrawal plan would leave a residual force of as many as 50,000 support troops that would advise Iraqi forces and perform other security missions, the officials said.
"It will require a significant number of troops to train the Iraqi military, conduct targeted counterterrorism operations and protect American personnel and assets," said another U.S. official. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, is working out the details of the composition of the residual force, he said.
Obama's expected decision would set in motion a major logistical effort by the U.S. military of pulling out a combat brigade about every five weeks.
The timing of the Iraq withdrawal was not determined by Obama's recent announcement of a troop increase in Afghanistan, the officials said, although senior Army and Marine Corps leaders have often said that the availability of reinforcements for Afghanistan will depend on the pace of removing troops from Iraq.
The decisions will keep the total number of U.S. combat brigades deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan at a relatively high level for at least the next year and a half, exerting continued stress on U.S. ground forces wearied from repeated tours.
"This next 24 months is a critical 24 months in many ways," Mullen told reporters last Friday, saying that the U.S. military had to accept important risks around the world as a result of having so many of its forces rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If we have a significant ground force forward in some other place, that would create huge challenges for us," said Mullen, who recently completed a global risk assessment.
"We are taking more long-term risk, because I don't have the forces out to be engaged and developing relationships," Mullen said. He said that challenge would be alleviated after the Army and Marine Corps complete their planned growth, which will add several more ground combat brigades to the total available to deploy.