President Barack Obama told lawmakers on Thursday he plans to withdraw most American troops from Iraq by August 2010 but leave tens of thousands behind to advise Iraqi forces and protect U.S. interests, congressional officials said.
Obama is expected to announce the new strategy on Friday during a trip to the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
In a closed-door meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders, Obama and his top advisers estimated that 35,000 to 50,000 troops would remain in Iraq after the bulk of troops are withdrawn.
Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war and pledged to do so in 16 months. The withdrawal timetable he is expected to approve stretches over 19 months from his inauguration in January. That means some 100,000 troops would leave over the coming 18 months.
Rep. John McHugh, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said Obama promised him to reconsider the new strategy if violence rises. McHugh said he was worried the situation in Iraq remained fragile, especially as it approaches elections in December.
"Our commanders must have the flexibility they need in order to respond to these challenges, and President Obama assured me that there is a 'Plan B,'" McHugh, R-N.Y., said in a statement.
According to one congressional official, lawmakers were told that Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Baghdad, believed the plan presented moderate risk but supported the 50,000 figure.
Some Democrats are skeptical but because they say it would leave too many troops behind.
"I have been one for a long time that's called for significant cutbacks in Iraq, and I am happy to listen to the secretary of defense and the president," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters before the briefing. "But when they talk about 50,000, that's a little higher number than I had anticipated."
In addition to Reid, congressional leaders attending the meeting included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had also been expected to attend as well.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N.'s Security Council on Thursday that the U.S. would move "responsibly and safely" to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
She said the process of redeploying American combat troops will be carried out in consultation with the Iraqi government "and with its support."
An existing U.S-Iraq agreement, negotiated under President George W. Bush, calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Baghdad and other cities by the end of June, with all American forces out of the country by the end of 2011.