U.S. planners in Iraq are considering cutting troop unit deployments from 12 months to as low as nine months some time after the force falls to the 50,000 mark, the top U.S. commander there said Wednesday.

“I think nine months would be reasonable,” Army Gen. Ray Odierno said during a Pentagon news conference. But he cautioned that there is no certainty such a change will take place during the period between September and Dec. 31, 2011, by which time all major U.S. military units must be withdrawn.

“What we have to do is sustain a certain level through the end,” he told reporters at an earlier breakfast meeting. “We’re still working through that.”

Odierno said the plan now is to remain at the 50,000 level through next summer, at which time the force, following a command reassessment, would begin drawing down to zero over the following four months.

The trick is determining how to maintain the balance of skills that will continue to be required in Iraq as force levels fall, he said.

After his staff reviews the concept, the command will produce recommendations that Odierno will then run by the Joint Staff and Army officials.

“If we can do it, we will do it,” Odierno said.

The staff is considering changes only to unit deployment lengths, and the change would only affect Army units, as no Marine units remain in Iraq. Individual augmentees, he said, would “probably stay” at 12-month tours.

After December 2011, only limited U.S. personnel, such as weapons system trainers and embassy liaisons, will continue to be assigned to Iraq, Odierno said.

While Marine Corps unit tour lengths never changed from the standard seven months, the Army three years ago was forced to impose 15-month tour lengths for active-duty troops as the Pentagon struggled with growing violence in Iraq that threatened to upend coalition efforts to stabilize the country.

Although U.S. forces are not performing independent combat patrols — Odierno said advisers accompany Iraqi patrols, with U.S. logistical support — a force of 50,000 needs to stay in place for another 12 months to help the new Iraqi government stabilize, to continue to train and advise Iraqi Security Forces, and to help with transitioning the mission to the U.S. Embassy as the State Department takes full control of the U.S. engagement with Iraq.

Source: William H. McMichael for Military Times.

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