EXPEDITED IRAQ WITHDRAWAL?…. Pentagon officials have said more than once recently that the U.S. withdrawal timetable for Iraq remains on schedule, violent flare-ups notwithstanding. Defense Secretary Robert Gates went a little further today, raising the prospect of a faster pullout of U.S. troops.

Gates told reporters after a two-day visit to Iraq that there was “at least some chance for a modest acceleration” of plans for the drawdown of American troops this year.

Citing his talks with the top US commander in Iraq, he said a stepped up withdrawal was possible “because of the way General (Ray) Odierno sees the way things going” amid declining violence and increasingly capable Iraqi security forces.

The current plan would have two combat brigade teams depart by the end of the year but Gates said “maybe one more” brigade could be withdrawn as well before elections in January.

An additional brigade would mean the withdrawal of as many as 5,000 Americans.

Spencer Ackerman notes that Gates’ remarks about the military presence in Iraq coincides with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

As for the larger context of the Iraqi conflict, Gates’ comments about a speedier withdrawal are encouraging, but I think Michael Crowley’s take about the timetable sounds about right: “As American troops leave in large numbers, it seems likely that Iraq will either largely hold together, with scattered instances of conflict and terrorism, or plunge back into a renewed nightmare of chaos and sectarian violence. We can tweak our exit schedule to leave faster or more slowly, but the real question is whether the place is fundamentally able to hold together, and that remains unclear.”

Gates, Odierno, and other leaders seem confident. Time will tell.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.