General Petraeus "is worried about risk, and all things being equal he'd like to keep as much as he could for as long as he could," a senior military officer was quoted as saying in The New York Times.

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The armies of Iraq

In his appearance before congress, Petreaus will discuss the possibility of greater withdrawals, starting in January and lasting for several months, that would bring the number of troops down to about 130,000, the newspaper quoted officials involved in the preparation of his testimony as saying.

Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Iraq, will begin their testimony about the war's progress to the Democrat-controlled congress on Monday as American casualties continue to mount.

US troops killed

Four US marines were killed in fighting in al-Anbar province on Thursday, a predominantly Sunni province west of Baghdad that has seen a recent drop in violence.

"General Petraeus will testify before congress next week. We should wait to hear from him then. Any decisions made will be based on conditions on the ground"

Gordon Johndroe,
White House spokesman
Three Task Force Lightning soldiers also were killed in the northern Ninevah province when a bomb exploded near their vehicle, the military said. 

The latest deaths brought the military's losses in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to 3,749, according to an AFP news agency count based on Pentagon figures.

The Washington Post, citing an unnamed senior US official, reported that Petraeus has indicated a willingness to consider a drawdown of between 3,500 and 4,500 US troops early next year, with more to follow over the next few months based on conditions on the ground.

The pullouts would be made only if the remaining US and Iraqi forces were able to sustain what the administration sees as recent gains in security and to make further inroads in stabilising Iraq, the newspaper said.

Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, said when asked about the reports: "General Petraeus will testify before congress next week. We should wait to hear from him then. Any decisions made will be based on conditions on the ground."

Withdrawal timetable

Meanwhile, senior Democrats in congress suggested that they were backing away from setting fixed dates for a complete withdrawal from Iraq.

Carl Levin, a Democratic senator, said he was considering legislation which would mandate withdrawals of most combat troops to begin within four months, but not, like previous bills, include a firm date for them to be completed.
  
The hope is that the approach could attract enough Republican senators to assemble the 60-vote senate supermajority needed to pass major legislation.
  
"If that change would bring additional senators along so that we could overcome the filibuster which has thwarted us, as a majority, from accomplishing what we want to accomplish, I think that change  in language is worthy of consideration," he said on Thursday.