SAN SALVADOR -- US military chiefs will weigh the strain on US forces and other global commitments in assessing whether troop levels in Iraq should continue to come down in the second half of 2008, the top US military officer said Friday.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it was too soon to tell whether conditions will permit a further drawdown of US forces from the four combat brigades scheduled to come out by July.
"Clearly, that is really something I'm going to have to take from (General) David Petraeus," he said, referring to the US commander in Iraq. "I will listen very intently to what he says about that."
But Mullen told reporters traveling with him in Latin America that he will lead an independent assessment with other military chiefs, looking at the global implications and the impact on US forces of the future US posture in Iraq.
"The Joint Chiefs of Staff reserve the right to give that regional and global piece to say, are we willing to recommend that we take more risk, or in fact that he is asking too much," Mullen said as he flew here from Colombia.
The strain on the US force "clearly will be part of this assessment," he said, adding, "I consider that a principle responsibility that I have."
Currently, there are about 160,000 troops, including 14 combat brigades, in Iraq. Four brigades are supposed to come out by July, leaving about 130,000 to 140,000 troops in the country.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he would like to see another five brigades come out by the end of the year, reducing US force levels to around 100,000.
But US commanders have indicated that they prefer to move slowly on further reductions for fear of losing the hard fought gains made over the course of a year-long surge in US forces.
Petraeus is conducting his own assessment of requirements beyond July, and his recommendations are expected to carry great weight.
Admiral William Fallon, the head of the US Central Command, is conducting another assessment, looking at the situation from a regional context.
Gates has set up the process so that if there is no agreement on the course of action among those three groups, President George W. Bush will be able to hear the views of all sides before making a decision.
As chairman, Mullen has emphasized the need to get back to more manageable rotations of US ground forces.
The army, in particular, is now so stretched that soldiers are being deployed for 15 months, with only a year at home between combat tours.
Mullen said he informally samples the stress on the force during visits with troops at military installations around the world.
"I think the biggest immediate lever is to get the 15 month deployments down to 12 months, to get back in balance on a one to one rotation. And then based on the overall requirement to move ahead to get that from 12 to 15 months (at home)," he said.
"There are other pieces to that balance, but that is probably the single biggest lever we have to ease the strain on the force," he said.
Mullen also said the need for forces in Afghanistan also is a consideration. The marines are sending a 3,200 man force in April to help counter a surge in Taliban violence.
"It's very clear, and I've said before, in the Afghanistan campaign this is an economy of force. If we had more forces available, we would use them," he said.
"So the question is, over time if we have more forces available what would we do with them and where would they go," he said. "We haven't answered that, and we won't answer that in this assessment."
Copyright © 2008 Agence France Presse. All rights reserved.