By Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr
Despite adamant statements that no final decisions have been made about future U.S. troop levels in Iraq, discussions within the administration have included a potential option for keeping just 3,000 forces there beginning next year, according to a senior Pentagon official.
The official emphasized strongly that no final decisions have been made and that discussions with the Iraqis continue. He suggested strongly that the 3,000 number was the low end of any "prudent planning" and if approved by both sides would only allow for minimal training to take place.
There are currently more than 40,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. The current agreement is for all troops to withdraw by year's end. However, the U.S. expects the Iraqis to request some U.S. troops to remain to aid in training and security.
A senior defense official told CNN, "Any kind of post-2011 presence would have to be agreed to by the Iraqis. The discussions with the Iraqis have hardly gotten off the ground, so anyone who says they know precisely how many, if any, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq beyond the end of the year is speculating."
The 3,000 figure was originally reported by Fox News, which said it was signed off on by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The official CNN spoke to said he was unaware of Panetta signing off on any troop numbers.
Panetta's spokesman, George Little, denied any decision had been made on troop levels in Iraq.
"Discussions with the Iraqis on our post-2011 strategic relationship are ongoing, and no decisions on troop levels have been made. We continue to proceed with troops withdrawals as directed by the president," Little said in a statement.
For his part, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stuck to the message Tuesday, saying the U.S. presence come 2012 will depend on the will of the Iraqis.
"With regards to what our presence will look like on that, that is going to be a subject of negotiations with Iraqis," Panetta told media traveling with him to the 9/11 memorial in New York. "I can't give you a number or tell you what that number looks like. It's going to have to be part of the negotiations."
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein thinks it's a "mistake" to reduce the troop level to 3,000 at this time. She says recent attacks by "new groups" need to be stopped first.
"I think it's too fast," said Feinstein, D-California told CNN Congressional Producer Ted Barrett. "There are some serious things going on there that need to be stopped."
The report of the low figure being considered also sparked criticism from Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who supported the 2007 surge of troops that helped turn the momentum around in Iraq, as well as Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.
"This is dramatically lower than what our military leaders have consistently told us over the course of repeated visits to Iraq that they require, and that is needed to support Iraq in safeguarding the hard-won gains that our two nations have achieved at such great cost," the senators said in a statement. "We are very concerned by the prospect that a follow-on force might lack the capabilities and authorities necessary to help Iraqis ensure stability across the disputed territories in northern Iraq, which we consider an essential mission."
The Pentagon official said the U.S. planning involves estimating what military tasks the Iraqis may want help with and then calculating how many troops it would take to accomplish those missions. Any troop number would have to be agreed to by both sides.
U.S. officials have long said they believe Iraq may need help with training, counter terrorism, air defense, command and control and intelligence operations. Any U.S. troops remaining to do those jobs might also need additional security forces.