WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States expects to have about 140,000 troops in Iraq even after completing a planned drawdown of combat forces in July, the Pentagon said on Monday.
The forecast, which prompted swift criticism from Democrats, means there will still be 8,000 more U.S. troops in Iraq than when President George W. Bush ordered a surge of extra forces in January 2007 to curb violence.
Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director of operations for the U.S. military’s Joint Staff, also said it was too soon to predict if troop numbers could go below the pre-surge level of 132,000 any time this year.
“In Iraq, we’re now projecting approximately 140,000 troops there in July,” Ham told reporters at the Pentagon.
“There certainly is full expectation that there will be further reductions,” he said. “When those will begin and at what pace they will continue -- it’s premature at this point to talk about that.”
There are currently some 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Extra U.S. troops, co-opting of former Sunni insurgents and a cease-fire ordered by radical Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have all helped reduce violence in Iraq substantially from levels that were close to all-out civil war, analysts say.
But commanders in Iraq have urged a cautious approach to cutting troop numbers, saying security gains remain fragile and violence too high.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has backed the idea of a pause in drawdowns after the United States completes the withdrawal of five combat brigades and other units -- a total of about 21,000 troops -- by July.
While the extra combat forces will not be replaced, some 8,000 other troops including headquarters staff, military police, aviation specialists and logistics forces look set to stay in Iraq or be replaced by similar units, Ham indicated.
Many of those troops are required to assist Iraqi soldiers and support a U.S. combat force which would be thinner on the ground and may need more backup from the air, Ham said.
“There is an opportunity now to take advantage of the security that has been established by the five surge brigades and you want to sustain that and not jeopardize the gains that have been achieved,” he said.
But Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, said it was clear the surge was not the temporary measure first portrayed by the Bush administration.
“As we approach the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, Americans continue to demand a new direction in Iraq and reject a continuation of the president’s plan for a 10-year, trillion-dollar war in Iraq,” Pelosi said in a statement.
Ham also said the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is expected to climb to an all-time high of 32,000 troops by late summer, from about 28,000 today.
Amid concern in Washington about rising violence in Afghanistan, the Pentagon said in January it would send some 3,200 Marines to train Afghan forces and fight Taliban insurgents in the country’s restive south.