WASHINGTON– Even with the positive trend lines in Iraq, leaders will not rush the assessment process for determining U.S. force levels in the country, Pentagon officials said today. The assessment process is as transparent as the department can make it, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said today. While pundits have called for greater redeployments from Iraq, the department will wait and see what commanders recommend.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates finds his most valuable advice comes from commanders on the ground, and he will continue to rely on them, Whitman said.

“We are reaching that period of time when the post-surge assessment will be done,” he said.

The last surge brigade combat team will leave Iraq by the end of this month. Commanders from all levels will give their recommendations on how things are going in their various parts of Iraq. Once the surge brigade leaves, commanders could decide on consolidation or repositioning of forces.

“Commanders are out there doing the work every day and have their eyes on the security situation,” Whitman said. “They are the ones who should be making the judgment on what the way forward should be, and they will be making their recommendations through the chain of command.”

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq; Army Lt. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, acting commander of U.S. Central Command; and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “will all be in a position to make recommendations to the secretary about the way forward,” Whitman said.

The secretary will discuss their recommendations with President Bush, who will determine the appropriate way forward, the spokesman said. “I have to emphasize that there have been no decisions made yet, and we are just entering this period of assessment,” Whitman said.

No one in the Pentagon is leaning forward trying to hurry the process, Whitman said. “I don’t see people in this building trying to prejudge what the commanders might think is the best way forward,” he said.

There is no doubt the security situation in Iraq has improved over the last several months, Whitman said. The surge provided the manpower needed to hold areas cleared of terrorists, and the additional brigades also allowed Iraqi security forces the time to train.

“All the trend lines tend to be very positive, which would indicate that there is potential for further drawdowns in Iraq,” he said. “But there have been no decisions made with respect to the force posture beyond completion of the withdrawal of the surge brigades.”

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