THE EUPHRATES VALLEY, Iraq -- In a thinning of its forces, the U.S. Army plans to begin within two weeks to withdraw about 20,000 troops from southern Iraq, roughly one-quarter of its combat forces there, Army commanders said yesterday.
The reason for the withdrawal, the officials said, was that Iraq's military had been so devastated by the Persian Gulf war that there was no longer any need for the large U.S. force deployed there.
In addition, a senior Army general said the withdrawing troops are needed in Europe and the United States so that they would be available for other possible military contingencies.
The withdrawal is consistent with the Bush administration's policy of not intervening in the rebellion in Iraq despite atrocities reported by refugees fleeing areas controlled by President Saddam Hussein.
The withdrawal, if carried out as planned, would seem to lessen the pressure on Mr. Hussein, although military officials say that is not their goal.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government declared victory yesterday -Z against Kurdish insurgents in northern Iraq and said it was mopping up the last major rebel forces active in the north.
Iraq asserted that loyalist forces had retaken three important towns in the Kurdish north, including the oil town of Kirkuk.
"The sectarian sedition has breathed its last breath," Prime Minister Saadun Hamadi said on Baghdad Radio.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, said that the United States should prevent Iraq from using helicopter gunships against rebels but should not otherwise intervene in the insurrection against Mr. Hussein.
"I don't think the United States can intervene in every internal conflict, however despicable the circumstances may be," Mr. Mitchell said on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
The senator added, "I wish they would enforce the original policy of not permitting any aircraft, fixed-wing or helicopters, to
operate against the rebels."
Pentagon officials said the pullout orders stemmed from the facthat a formal United Nations cease-fire resolution was probably days away. They added that Iraq's military is a far less significant threat today than last month, when a tentative cease-fire went into effect.
The resolution being developed by the U.N. Security Council offers Iraq a cease-fire as soon as it agrees to accept all its provisions, thus ending any possibility the allies might intervene on the side of the rebels.
It would also permit Mr. Hussein to raise his people's living standards and fight on against Kurdish and Shiite rebels.
The Iraqi leader has accepted all previous Security Council demands in order to secure the present suspension of allied attacks against his forces. Iraq has agreed to to return Kuwaiti property, send back prisoners of war and detainees, and accept financial liability for the damage the invasion of Kuwait caused.
Meanwhile, U.S. officers expressed confidence about reducing their forces here.
"We can hang on to that little piece of Iraq with less than a corps," one Army official said. A Pentagon official added that for both political and military reasons, the U.S. Central Command did not want to stay in Iraq "one second longer than they have to."
"There is not much of a military reason left" to justify the size of the force in Iraq, one official said.
According to a notice sent by U.S. military authorities in Saudi Arabia to army commanders here, two important units -- the 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment -- have been instructed to prepare to begin withdrawing from Iraq by mid-April.
"My division is planning to pull off line on the 12th of April," said Maj. Gen. Ronald H. Griffith, commander of the 1st Armored. The division is normally based in Germany but is now stationed between Basra and Nasiriya.
General Griffith said that some of the remaining Army divisions in Iraq would shift their position to cover the front near the Euphrates River now occupied by the 1st Armored and will man the checkpoint there, which has been receiving thousands of refugees and Iraqi deserters.
General Griffith said that he was not aware of a pressing neefor his forces in Europe at this time, but he added: "I would not have thought a year ago that I would be in Iraq, either."
He expressed concern over the fate of thousands of refugees who are flooding into southern Iraq.
President Bush has stated that the United States does not plan to intervene militarily in the fighting in Iraq, and the general reaffirmed that.
"The Shiites call them resistance fighters," he said. "But I do not see much resistance."
He said that the situation in Iraq now is "terribly complicated, and it is probably best left to the people in the region to sort out for themselves."