WASHINGTON President Barack Obama looks likely to order U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq over a period of about 19 months -- a compromise between his campaign pledge and some commanders' wishes, officials said on Tuesday.
A formal announcement is expected by the end of the week, marking a milestone in an unpopular conflict that overshadowed the presidency of Republican George W. Bush and helped Democrats retake Congress and the White House.
Obama's decision fits with his intention to shift the United States' military focus to Afghanistan from Iraq and to cut the U.S. budget deficit, partly by reducing war costs.
Obama was likely to come down somewhere between the 16-month timetable he advocated as a presidential candidate and fierce war critic, and a 23-month plan favoured by some military commanders, an administration official said.
A second official said a 19-month compromise plan now seemed the most likely option.
"That's the way the wind's blowing," the official said.
Pentagon officials said some U.S. troops, including about 40,000 devoted to training and mentoring the Iraqi security forces, were expected to remain through the end of 2011, when all U.S. forces are due to have left the country.
U.S. forces could stay even longer if Washington and Baghdad choose to renegotiate the pact that obliges all U.S. forces to be gone by the end of 2011, officials have said.
There are now about 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
Several officials cautioned that discussions were continuing.
"The president has not made any final decision on Iraq policy," an administration official said.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
If Obama says U.S. combat forces should be out of Iraq within 19 months of his inauguration on January 20, 2009, that would give them a deadline of late August 2010.
Several officials said Obama could make a formal announcement on troop withdrawals this week.
According to the White House, he is due to travel on Friday to North Carolina, a state that is home to several large military bases. A defence official said Obama was expected to visit Camp Lejeune, a major base for U.S. Marines.
General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command that oversees military operations in the Middle East, had favoured a 23-month withdrawal timeline, according to one official.
Both commanders have cautioned that Iraq remains fragile and dramatic security gains achieved over the past year and a half could be reversed if U.S. forces withdraw too quickly.
As a presidential candidate, Obama pledged to withdraw responsibly from Iraq. But he has made clear his military priority is Afghanistan and he issued orders last week for 17,000 extra U.S. troops to deploy there.
The United States currently has some 38,000 troops in Afghanistan, where insurgent violence is at its highest level since U.S-led forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
Obama is expected to use the decline in spending that should result from winding down the Iraq war as a way to slash the ballooning federal budget deficit in half by 2013, administration officials said.
Word of the possible decision surfaced as Obama met at the White House with Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Officials said Iraq was also discussed on Tuesday in the White House National Security Council.
(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin; Editing by Peter Cooney)