The US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, hinted he may recommend a reduction of US troops there by March next year, in an interview released Tuesday.
"There are limits to what our military can provide, so, my recommendations have to be informed by -- not driven by -- but they have to be informed by the strain we have put on our military services," Petraeus said in the interview with ABC television in Baghdad.
Asked if troops could be drawn down in March 2008, the general said: "your calculations are about right."
Recommendations from Petraeus and the US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will form a key element of a pivotal White House progress report to the Democratic-led Congress on the Iraq war due September 15.
While Democrats have demanded George W. Bush set a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces, the US president has pleaded for patience and called on lawmakers to wait for Petraeus' assessment.
While troop levels would be scaled back over the "long-term," the US general told ABC he sees the war effort as a "traditional counter-insurgency" that could last a decade.
"Iraq will be dealing with a variety of issues for quite some time, without question. What everyone needs to figure out is how much will we need to contribute, and I think the answer is, less," he said.
In an interview in June with Fox News, Petraeus said that difficulties in Iraq would not be resolved "in a year or even two years."
"In fact, typically, I think historically, counter-insurgency operations have gone at least nine or 10 years," he said at the time.
The general's reference to a possible reduction in US troops deployed in Iraq came a day after Bush, in a surprise visit to Iraq, said a reduction in combat troops was possible.
In a visit to a desert base in the western Anbar province, Bush said Monday that Petraeus and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, believed that "if the kind of success we are now seeing (in Anbar) continues, it is possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces."
US officials have been encouraged by former Sunni insurgents joining with US forces to fight Al-Qaeda extremists in the Anbar province, and Petraeus in his interview cited developments there as significant progress.
"That (change in Anbar) was the result, not of military actions, certainly, alone. It was the result of, really, a political shift where the population led by the sheikhs of major tribes decided to reject Al-Qaeda and its Taliban-like ideology, and the extremist behavior that they have come to associate with it," he said.
Petraeus said while Iraq was still "very dangerous" and insurgents remain "capable" of carrying out major attacks, he said the surge of extra US troops launched this year has produced an "initiative, in general, against al-Qaeda, which is a change, and that is an important change."