WASHINGTON - The top U.S. general in Iraq has outlined for Pentagon leaders a withdrawal plan that would pull thousands more troops out of Iraq early next year, but move more cautiously than the 16-month timetable pledged by President-elect Barack Obama.

Gen. Raymond Odierno envisions a gradual drawdown of the nearly 150,000 U.S. forces in Iraq to meet a deadline of full withdrawal of fighting forces before 2012, military officials said yesterday.

That timetable is in synch with the three-year deadline set in a new security agreement signed with Baghdad. And it has the full support of Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has overall responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Ultimately, this will be up to the president-elect . . . to determine the direction he wishes to go in Iraq and what the force requirements will be to get there," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

Morrell said there had been no final decisions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates or the White House.

Odierno and his boss, Petraeus, described their proposal to the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, and the civilian heads of the armed services late last week, senior military officials said. Some officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Odierno's recommendations have not been made public.

Military officials described the recommendations as Odierno's exit strategy for Iraq stretching out through 2011, designed to meet the requirements of the security agreement, not Obama's campaign pledge to get combat troops out of Iraq in 16 months.

The security agreement calls for all forces to pull out, but both U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they expect relatively small numbers of noncombat forces to remain. Gates reiterated that in an interview Wednesday.

"My guess is that you are looking at perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops" left behind after fighting forces depart, Gates said on PBS's

The Charlie Rose Show

. Those forces would serve "in a very different role than we have played in the last five years."

Gates discussed troop numbers and withdrawal options during a wide-ranging conversation with Odierno when the two met during Gates' surprise trip to Iraq last week, Morrell said.

Gates and Mullen met with Obama and aides in Chicago on Monday. Gates will continue in his job under Obama, and Mullen has said he also expects to stay on.

An Obama transition official said the session covered topics from the Mideast to India and lasted more than five hours.

Mullen and Gates "briefly discussed current plans developed under President Bush" to meet terms of the Iraq security agreement, the official said, adding that the discussion did not go much further because "there's one commander in chief at a time, and everyone around that table respects that."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to outline the confidential talks.

No officials would provide specifics of Odierno's recommendations, such as how many forces would be out by the end of next year.