WASHINGTON (AP) - The scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is on track, a Pentagon official said Wednesday, but the Obama administration has yet to decide how many troops might stay there on a revised mission to help train Iraqi forces.
"The drawdown has begun," Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters. He referred to the departure from Iraq this week of about 700 members of a headquarters unit. Their departure marks the start of the withdrawal of the final 46,000 U.S. troops there.
Yet to be decided is the size and mission of any stay-behind contingent. The Iraqi government said last month that it is interested in negotiating the terms for a U.S. military group to continue training Iraqi forces beyond Dec. 31, when the last U.S. forces are to have departed under a 2008 agreement.
The administration is considering a number of options that could leave several thousand troops in Iraq to do training and possibly other missions.
If the Iraqis decide they don't need a reinforced U.S. training contingent, then only about 150 U.S. military members would remain in Iraq next year as part of the U.S. Embassy's Office of Security Cooperation. They would help train Iraqis on new military equipment like battle tanks.
James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, said Wednesday a proposal to keep 3,000 troops in Iraq next year, as reported by some news organizations, has "no official status or credibility." Jeffrey said that proposal has not been a part of ongoing discussions in Baghdad where both governments have been weighing whether up to 10,000 US forces should stay beyond Dec. 31.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, who will take over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the end of the month, said Wednesday that he hasn't been part of the internal deliberations on the drawdown. At a ceremony, Dempsey was asked about reports that the U.S. might leave as few as 3,000 troops in Iraq.
"I haven't been exposed to the number," he said, adding "we should all realize that the Iraqi government will also have a say in what size structure and what size force should remain and for what purposes."