Initially it was reported that Mike Mullen announced a reduction of troops in Iraq to 30,000 by the end of this month. That seemed a bit high with 10 days to go in the month, considering that around 44,500 are on the ground now. That eventually was revised to 40,000. But Mullen made some key remarks:

Capt. John Kirby said Mullen spoke in error when he told a crowd at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the number was lower.

Kirby added that “the larger point” that Mullen made “is still valid: We are on track to meet the president’s goal of withdrawing all American troops from Iraq by the end of the year.”

There are about 44,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. When the U.S. officially ended its combat mission in Iraq on Sept. 1, 2010, it had about 50,000 troops. Under a 2008 agreement, all U.S. troops are to be out of Iraq by the end of this year.

“This is the drawdown plan that Gen. Austin’s had in place specifically, and it’s really a plan that gets us to, under the current agreement, to (pulling) all the troops out by the end of December,” Mullen said during a news conference Tuesday with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Gen. Lloyd Austin is the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

It should be mentioned that Mullen retires in 10 days, so he won’t be around for the endgame.

Since there is currently no agreement with Iraq on an extension, the military has to operate under the belief that they must have all troops out by the end of the year. Mullen and others said months ago that once the withdrawal was in motion it would be very difficult to stop.

There are ongoing talks with the Iraqis to leave a small contingent of trainers in the country after the end of December, but with three months to go, no decision has been reached. And at some point, a drop-dead date will come where the military will have to go home.

There will still be some US presence in Iraq. They’ve built a huge US Embassy and plan to staff it with 8,000 private security contractors. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, this has come up in negotiations with the Iraqis. I’m assuming that Iraqi’s main concern is the issue of diplomatic immunity from prosecution, which the US wants for both military trainers and private security contractors.

But as a political issue, the question of extending the US presence will be resonant going into an election year. Barack Obama rose to the Presidency on perhaps no other issue bigger than opposition to the war in Iraq. The ground has not been prepared among the public for US troops to stay past December. There will be blowback if the Administration decides to keep them there longer.

David Dayen

David Dayen