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Plan outlined for Iraq pullout

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The top U.S. general in Iraq has outlined for Pentagon leaders a withdrawal plan that would pull thousands more troops out of Iraq early next year, but move more cautiously than the 16-month timetable pledged by President-elect Barack Obama.

Military officials said Thursday that Gen. Raymond Odierno envisions a gradual drawdown of the nearly 150,000 U.S. forces in Iraq to meet a deadline of full withdrawal of fighting forces before 2012.

That timetable is in synch with the three-year deadline set in a new security agreement signed with Baghdad. And it has the full support of Gen. David Petraeus, who has overall responsibility for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

"Ultimately, this will be up to the president-elect, to the new commander in chief, to determine the direction he wishes to go in Iraq and what the force requirements will be to get there," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Morrell said there have been no final decisions by Defense Secretary Robert Gates or the White House.

Odierno and his boss Petraeus described their proposal to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and the civilian heads of the armed services late last week, senior military officials said. Some officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Odierno's recommendations have not been made public.

Military officials described the recommendations as Odierno's exit strategy for Iraq stretching out through 2011, designed to meet the requirements of the security agreement, not Obama's campaign pledge to get combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months.

The security agreement calls for all forces to pull out, but both U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they expect relatively small numbers of noncombat forces to remain. Gates repeated that prediction in a television interview Wednesday.

"My guess is that you are looking at perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops," left behind after fighting forces depart, Gates said on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show." Those forces would serve "in a very different role than we have played in the last five years."

Gates discussed troop numbers and withdrawal options during a wide-ranging conversation with Odierno when the two met during Gates' surprise trip to Iraq last week, Morrell said.

Gates and Mullen met with Obama and aides in Chicago on Monday. Gates will continue in his job under Obama, and Mullen has said he also expects to stay on.

An Obama transition official said the session covered topics from the Mideast to India, and lasted more than five hours.

"Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates briefly discussed current plans developed under President Bush," to meet terms of the Iraq security agreement, the official said. The discussion didn't go much farther, because "there's one commander in chief at a time and everyone around that table respects that."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to outline the confidential talks.

No officials would provide specifics of Odierno's recommendations, such as how many forces would be out by the end of next year.

The range of options would include a reduction in the more than 20,000 Marines currently serving in the western Anbar province — a region that has seen a dramatic decline in violence.

Marine leaders have been repeatedly pressing to get out of Iraq and into Afghanistan — a plan that Gates has indicated greater interest in lately than he had when the plan was presented months ago.

Petraeus told his troops this month that despite progress on both fronts, the U.S. and its allies face a tough fight in the year ahead.

Petraeus wrote in a letter to all troops in U.S. Central Command — stretching across the Middle East and throughout Central Asia — that improved security conditions in Iraq remain fragile and that while the Afghan army is improving, "the difficulties in Afghanistan are considerable."

It was the first time since Petraeus took charge of Central Command, following almost two years as the top U.S. commander in Baghdad, that he has offered troops what he called "my initial assessment of the situation." It covered not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and other parts of the region.

The letter, dated Dec. 9, was released by his office at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.

Petraeus has assembled a team of experts to conduct an in-depth and comprehensive review of his command area; it is expected to be completed by early February.