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Gates discusses US troop proposals for Iraq, including expected summer pause in drawdown
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    WASHINGTON — Top U.S. military leaders presented Defense Secretary Robert Gates with their strategy for future force levels in Iraq Thursday, including expected recommendations for a pause in troop cuts for as much as six weeks later this summer.
    The hourlong videoconference marked the start of what will be a series of meetings, presentations and congressional testimony over the next two weeks that will assess the military, political and economic progress in Iraq.
    During the Pentagon meeting, Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heard from the top commander in the Middle East, Adm. William Fallon, and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.
    Officials said little about the discussions, but there was no indication Petraeus had backed off his call for a brief pause in troop cuts after July in order to see what effect the lower force levels have on violence in Iraq.
    The key questions that Petraeus will face — and that are still unanswered — include how long will the pause will have to last in order to assess the security trends, how many troops will be able to come home once that period is over and if that will allow the Pentagon to reduce Army deployments from the current 15 months to 12 months, beginning with those who head to war in August as hoped.
    ‘‘This meeting was an opportunity for the secretary to be updated on the current thinking and analysis on the way ahead in Iraq from Admiral Fallon and General Petraeus,’’ said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
    He added that while this was the most recent session between the leaders, it doesn’t mean that thinking won’t continue to evolve until Petraeus goes before Congress on April 8.
    Other military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private, said there is little disagreement between Fallon and Petraeus over the basic strategy. Officials also are giving various estimates for the length of the pause — ranging from four to eight weeks, with most leaning toward the latter.
    Gates has endorsed the idea of a pause but has also said that it should be brief and that he would like to continue to reduce the number of troops in Iraq after the assessment break.
    Mullen, meanwhile, has said any break in troop cuts must be balanced against the strain on the force as well as the military’s need to address other threats worldwide.
    There has been some tension among other top military leaders over how long additional troop cuts can be delayed. The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, has expressed concern about the stress that long and repeated war deployments are putting on his soldiers and their families. And the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Conway, has voiced similar worries about the Marines.
    At the same time, however, military leaders have said repeatedly that they don’t want to do anything that would jeopardize the gains they have made in Iraq.
    There are currently 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and that number is expected to drop to about 140,000 by the end of July, when the troop buildup ends. The lower figure is 8,000 more than the number of troops in Iraq in January 2007, when President Bush ordered five additional brigades to Baghdad in order to quell violence.
    One of the military leaders who will have a firsthand look at the effects of the troop cuts will be Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, commander of the 10th Mountain Division. When Oates gets to Iraq in May, he will have three brigades under his command in the region south of Baghdad, rather than the four there now.
    On Thursday, Oates said he is ‘‘not terribly concerned’’ that he will have 3,500 to 4,000 fewer U.S. troops at his disposal. And he said his area of responsibility will likely expand, since there will be fewer troops covering the same territory. He said that his troops will probably extend their reach farther south and west and that his major focus will be on efforts to prepare the Iraqi forces to take over security for their own country.
    Petraeus’ assessment to Congress probably will also include a raft of charts detailing what has been a significant decline in violence since last summer. As of the end of February, overall attacks are down about 67 percent since last June, civilian deaths are down more than 60 percent and U.S. military deaths are down about 70 percent.
    The bulk of the reduction came between June and December, and since then attacks have either remained steady or declined slightly. Meanwhile, at least one statistic is troubling — the number of attacks carried by insurgents wearing vests laden with explosives is on the rise, signaling a shift in tactics.
    Some of the recent violence, however, has been attributed to increased military operations in the northern Ninevah province — and some suggest that the violence there is expected to decline in the coming months as a result of that stepped up activity.

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