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Army chiefs urge caution for Obama's planned troop cuts

  • Story Highlights
  • Transition team signals Obama plans to fulfill pledge on Iraq troop withdrawal
  • Podesta: "He'll listen to military commanders on the ground in in Iraq"
  • New top general in Iraq says troop cuts could happen sooner but urges caution
  • Iraqi commander or police chief is not in so much of a hurry, U.S. officer says
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By Jamie McIntyre
CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President-elect Barack Obama is not backing away from his campaign promise to bring all U.S. combat troops home from Iraq by late spring 2010.

But the question among sober-mined Pentagon planners is: Once he is in office, will the reality of war force him to reassess and put the brakes on a withdrawal?

Smart politicians always leave themselves an out, essentially reserving the right to right to renege on a campaign promise if conditions change.

For now, though, the transition team for the president-elect is signaling that Obama plans to fulfill his pledge to put U.S. troops on a fast track for home.

"He'll listen to military commanders on the ground in -- in Iraq, but I think that we want to withdraw," John Podesta, co-chairman of the Obama transition team, told CNN's John King over the weekend.

"I think he's clear that he wants to withdraw the combat force from Iraq in a responsible way and that the time frame that he put out is, again, is consistent with where the Iraqi government is today," Podesta said on CNN's "Late Edition." Video Watch more on Obama's Iraq promise »

But U.S. commanders remain wary of pulling out of Iraq too fast, and Monday provided another example why.

Violence may be down overall in Iraq, but any given day can explode with a round of bombings that can claim dozens of lives. On Monday, more than 35 Iraqis were killed in suicide attacks: three bombings in Baghdad and one in Baqouba.

So while the average Iraqi may want the U.S. out now, the average Iraqi commander or police chief is not in so much of a hurry, says one deputy U.S. commander.

Marine Maj. Gen. Martin Post, whose area of responsibility includes Anbar province, said at a Pentagon briefing, "They would probably tell you, 'Hey, we need you here for some period of time longer,' not really ever saying, 'We need you here for one year or two years.' But I think we're still, if you would, that security blanket for them in the -- standing behind them."

Post says Anbar province, once one of the most violent and the base of operations for al Qaeda in Iraq, has settled down under the authority of the Awakening Councils and Sons of Iraq and can get by with fewer U.S. troops.

"Later this year or early -- early 2009, there would probably be potential continued reductions out here. And I think we would be able to probably handle that quite nicely," Post said.

That dovetails somewhat with the thinking of Obama, Podesta says.

"We need to stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq," Podesta said. "That doesn't mean all troops will be eliminated from Iraq. It will still be necessary for force protection and our counter-terrorism mission and to -- and to do -- continue training of Iraqi forces.

"But we can get our combat force out of Iraq, pay attention to Afghanistan, and do that on -- I believe, on the time frame that President-elect Obama has suggested."

Obama is likely get some push back from his top generals, including Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command who oversees the Iraq and Afghanistan, whose aversion to speedy troop cuts was evident after a meeting with Obama in Iraq over the summer.

Afterward in Jordan, Obama sent a clear message that as commander in chief, he would listen but then make the decisions.

Of Petraeus, he said, "in his role as commander on the ground, not surprisingly, he wants to retain as much flexibility as possible in terms of accomplishing that goal. ... But my job as a candidate for president and a potential commander in chief extends beyond Iraq."

In Iraq, the new top commander, Gen. Raymond Odierno, told CNN last week that it may be possible to move faster than initially expected on troop cuts, but he also urged caution.

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That prudence is something Obama must consider if he decides to ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- the only Bush administration Cabinet member with wide bipartisan appeal -- to stay on.

Gates has backed his commander's reluctance to pull back, but he also said before the election that he thought whoever won would do the right thing in Iraq.

CNN political producer Ed Hornick contributed to this report.

All About Barack ObamaIraqDavid Petraeus

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