BAGHDAD &

The Bush administration removed Gen. George Casey from his job as the top U.S. commander in Iraq this year and effectively made him a scapegoat for the troubled war.




But with the U.S. now searching for a post-surge strategy for Iraq, Gen. Casey's core ideas &

withdrawing sizable numbers of American troops while ramping up efforts to train Iraq's security forces &

are back at the center of Iraq policy making.




After his reassignment, senior Bush administration officials such as National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley pointedly criticized Gen. Casey's handling of Iraq in interviews and other public comments. Bush, meanwhile, began to regularly hail Gen. David Petraeus as the right man for the job with the right strategy for Iraq, comments widely seen as digs at Gen. Casey.




The fall and subsequent rebound of Gen. Casey, who now serves as the Army's chief of staff, reflect the shifting politics of the Iraq war and the continuing evolution of the administration's Iraq policy. As a September deadline nears for the Bush administration to report on the progress of its current "surge" policy of sending more troops to quell unrest in and around Baghdad, the administration is growing more confident it can show enough signs of progress to prevent the U.S. Congress from forcing any immediate troop pullback.




Even if there is no immediate retreat from the surge that began earlier this year, all sides agree that manpower strains and the Army's troop-rotation schedule will force commanders to begin withdrawing some personnel early next year. That is raising the question of what to do next &

and is bringing Gen. Casey's ideas back into vogue.




Pentagon officials say Gen. Casey, from his new perch back in Washington, has forged a close relationship with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is working to craft a plan that is very similar to Gen. Casey's: to withdraw some U.S. troops next year while stepping up the training and equipping of Iraqi forces.




White House officials acknowledge that, with troop reductions of some kind virtually inevitable next year, the emerging thinking is drawing heavily from Gen. Casey's ideas. "One of the ironies is that this is where Gen. Casey had wanted to head two years ago," a senior national-security official said in an interview.




Gen. Casey himself continues to make the case that his original plan stands the best chance for long-term success in Iraq. In a series of interviews during a recent fact-finding trip to Iraq, he warned that the U.S. presence here can't be maintained much longer without damaging the military and further eroding public support for the war.




"There's an opportunity to build consensus at home around a policy that gradually brings the level of American forces down while handing security responsibility to the Iraqis," he said.




He said the U.S. could withdraw at least six of the 21 brigades now in the country over the course of the next year. That would reduce the U.S. presence to about 140,000 troops from 162,000, which would allow the Army to avoid extending deployments to 18 months from the current 15 months without significantly reducing the force level Bush and Gen. Petraeus want to keep. People familiar with Gen. Casey's thinking say he believes the U.S. presence could within the next few years shrink to seven brigades, or about 25,000 troops, a fraction of their current levels.




Gen. Casey served as the top U.S. commander in Iraq when the administration was pressing to withdraw some U.S. forces before the 2006 midterm elections. Bush mentioned Gen. Casey's name dozens of times in 2005 and 2006 and regularly said he was leaving key decisions about Iraq policy to the general.




But as security in Iraq deteriorated, the White House shifted gears and decided instead to send tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Iraq to try to tamp down the violence and give the politicians "breathing space" to make headway toward resolving some divisive issues. Gen. Casey disagreed publicly, arguing that such a move would deepen Iraqi dependency on the U.S. and hinder the development of Baghdad's own security forces.




Under pressure from the White House, Gen. Casey softened his opposition and said he could accept a temporary troop increase. But at that point, administration officials had lost faith in him. In January, the White House announced it would make Gen. Petraeus, the prime architect of the surge strategy, the top U.S. commander in Iraq and move Gen. Casey to the Pentagon.




As a result, Gen. Petraeus has emerged as the primary military face of American military strategy. His planned testimony before lawmakers next month, in which he is to assess the surge's successes and failures, will likely determine whether the administration can maintain the support of enough Republicans and moderate to conservative Democrats to stave off calls for a broader change of direction in the war.




But as Gen. Casey's case suggests, the Bush administration's preference to make top military commanders its main public advocates for the unpopular war carries some political risks for the officers themselves.




At the Senate confirmation hearings for his Army post, Republican senators derided Gen. Casey's handling of Iraq and accused him of offering overly optimistic assessments of conditions in the country.




"While I do not in any way question your honor, your patriotism or your service to our country, I do question some of the decisions and judgments you've made over the past 2&

181; years," Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain said during the February session.




Ten Republicans ultimately voted against Gen. Casey. The general still won approval, but the margin, 83-14, was the worst for any such nominee since the height of the Vietnam War.




Half a year later, Gen. Casey is starting to re-emerge as the debate moves to fashioning a long-term strategy. The turnaround began in December with the release of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report, which incorporated many of Gen. Casey's ideas, and has accelerated in recent months as political support for the war has continued to wane.




Today, lawmakers of both parties are coalescing around legislation that would implement Gen. Casey's original plan of getting U.S. forces out of front-line combat and refocusing the broader American mission on training Iraqis.




The men in charge of Iraq policy &

Bush and Gen. Petraeus &

remain opposed to this approach. White House aides said the president believes the surge is having a significant impact in Iraq and wants to give the strategy, and Gen. Petraeus, more time before contemplating any significant troop withdrawals. Administration officials said the White House will soon unveil a plan to gradually withdraw a modest number of troops, but will stop short, at least for now, of making a wholesale change to the broader U.S. mission here.




In his new job, Gen. Casey gets frequent reminders of the manpower strains facing the Army as a result of the war.




During a recent lunch here with the top American commander in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil, several senior commanders warned Gen. Casey that many talented young officers were planning to leave the military because they were worn out by repeated deployments to Iraq.




Gen. Casey said he was finalizing a new incentive program for young officers that would award them either $20,000, time off for graduate school, or the assignment of their choice in exchange for remaining in the Army.




But he acknowledged that the exodus was likely to continue unless the Army ends its practice of multiple Iraq deployments.




"Money, grad school &

it's all good," Gen. Casey told the officers. "But three or four deployments in eight years outweighs those issues. The surge sucked all of the flexibility out of the system."