WASHINGTON -- Gen. Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the United States would leave enough troops in southern Iraq "for some months to come" to pressure President Saddam Hussein to step down or agree to a more lasting peace.
General Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said U.S. fighter jets would continue to shoot down any Iraqi planes that took to the skies.
In an hourlong interview with several newspaper reporters, he said he was encouraged that the rebellions in northern and southern Iraq have lasted longer and posed a greater threat to the Hussein regime than the United States had expected.
He said world attention and the Americans' presence in southern Iraq meant that Mr. Hussein "has to be a little careful about how he goes about repressing the various insurrections that are taking place."
But while allied leaders still hope that Mr. Hussein will step aside or be overthrown, the downing of a second Iraqi warplane this week does not signify that they will use military force directly to support the rebels, General Powell said.
He said the downings stemmed mainly from the allies' determination to enforce the Persian Gulf war's temporary truce, in which Iraq agreed to keep all fixed-wing combat aircraft on the ground.
"It does not have to do with us trying to influence the internal battle that is taking place in the country one way or the other," General Powell said after warning that the United States would continue to shoot down Iraqi war jets.
Top U.S. officials have warned Iraq repeatedly not to use fixed-wing planes or combat helicopters to drop conventional bombs or chemical weapons on Kurdish rebels in the north or Shiite Muslims battling Mr. Hussein's forces for control of several cities in southern Iraq.
General Powell said the allies' main concern was that even though the Iraqi planes were operating several hundreds miles from U.S. forces in southern Iraq, they suddenly could have made "a -- to the border" to attack allied encampments.
General Powell did not specify how many troops the United States would keep in Iraq or how long they would remain. But he said the Pentagon planned to "continue to withdraw our forces at a pretty good clip" of about 5,000 people a day.
He said 100,000 of the 550,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen who waged the war against Iraq had already left the region, and FTC "we have sufficient forces in the theater even at this rapid rate of withdrawal that . . . I'm not worried about us being gone before all this is wrapped up."
General Powell said that given the "sustained nature of the insurrections" by the Kurds and the Shiites, "I think Mr. Hussein ,, has a real problem on his hands."
Looking back on the allies' victory, General Powell said the Iraqis were routed with far fewer casualties than he had expected. He said he had feared that the United States would suffer several thousand casualties. But only 125 U.S. soldiers were killed and 357 wounded.
General Powell also said he had "never had any second thoughts" about a U.S. decision to bomb a bunker in the Baghdad area in which scores of civilians died. "I have looked at the factors the targeters used," he said, and he remained convinced that the bunker, which the Iraqis described as a bomb shelter, was a military command facility.
Like other top U.S. officials, General Powell would not provide an estimate on the number of Iraqi soldiers killed and said the Pentagon had no plans to release such a figure. "It's not really a number that I'm terribly interested in," he said.