Sources: Bush to keep troop levels in Iraq for '08

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush is expected to keep U.S. troop levels in Iraq near their current level through the end of the year, then pull home up to 8,000 combat and support troops by mid-January, The Associated Press has learned.

Embracing the recommendation of military advisers, Bush likely will maintain 15 combat brigades and thousands of support forces through the final full year of his administration, according to officials familiar with Bush's expected announcement Tuesday.

Bush is expected to let one Marine battalion, numbering about 1,000 troops, go home on schedule in November and not replace it, but he otherwise would keep in place the current combat force.

At the same time, the president is expected to announce more troops will be coming back home after the first of the year. By January the drawdown would amount to between 7,500 and 8,000 troops, including the departure of one Army combat brigade, numbering between 3,500 and 4,000 troops.

The new plan may disappoint some members of Congress and others who expected a larger, faster reduction of troops in Iraq, considering the significant downturn in violence. According to defense officials, violence has plunged by about 80 percent since last year's peak.

As Bush's plan shapes up, it would be left to the next president to execute further troop reductions in Iraq and a greater buildup in Afghanistan. Several more combat brigades are scheduled to leave Iraq during the first half of next year, and decisions must be made on whether or not to replace them.

The plan also would send a small Marine contingent to Afghanistan in November to replace one of two units scheduled to head home then.

Commanders repeatedly have asked for more troops in Afghanistan, where there has been a resurgence of the Taliban and a growth in violence.

Bush is scheduled to announce the plans during remarks Tuesday at the National Defense University in Washington. White House officials said Monday that the president was nearing an announcement but declined to comment beyond that.

Officials familiar with the president's likely announcement described it on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Despite waning clout in the final stretch of his presidency, Bush has remained able to run the war on his terms, deciding troop levels as he sees fit.

That includes this latest announcement, in which Bush is largely maintaining the current force level in an effort to hold onto hard-fought security gains in Iraq.

It well could be his final major decision on the U.S. troop posture in Iraq as president.

According to senior defense officials, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, argued to keep troop levels fairly level through next June-an even longer timeframe.

But others-including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other members of the Joint Chiefs-said they believed that withdrawing troops more quickly from Iraq represented a small risk compared to the potential gain that could be made by shifting more to Afghanistan.

After much discussion, the military leaders agreed on the compromise plan that ultimately went to Bush.

Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the emerging plan reflects the concern of U.S. commanders: Rushing U.S. force reductions could lead to instability at a pivotal time of Iraqi political progress and preparedness of Iraqi forces.

"This plan does, however, mean continuing stress on both the active and reserve forces," Cordesman added.

Bush's term ends Jan. 20.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has advocated pulling all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of the new president taking office. GOP nominee John McCain has said he would rely on the advice of U.S. military commanders to determine the timing and pace of troop reductions.