Iraq troop cuts possible by mid-'06

General ties reductions to progress on political front

Rumsfeld pays visit

July 28, 2005|By Liz Sly and Michael Kilian | Liz Sly and Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The United States will be able to make "fairly substantial reductions" in the number of troops serving in Iraq by the middle of next year if the country's political process remains on track, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr. made the prediction as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Baghdad to urge Iraq's factions to stick to the timetable for drawing up a new constitution, something the Bush administration considers essential if the insurgency is to be weakened and the U.S. military presence to be reduced.

"We don't want any delays," Rumsfeld told reporters. "Now is the time to get on with it."

Rumsfeld's visit came amid mounting U.S. concern that Iraqi negotiators might miss the Aug. 15 deadline for completing a new constitution.

According to the timetable, Iraqis are to vote on the constitution in October and hold elections in December, completing the transition to democratic rule. Legislators have until Monday to decide whether they need a six-month extension to work on the document.

But Rumsfeld cautioned that postponing the deadline "would be very harmful to the momentum that's necessary."

"We have troops on the ground there. People get killed," he said. "It's time for compromise."

If the schedule is kept, Casey said, it should be possible to start bringing troops home next year. "If the political process continues to go positively, if the developments with the security forces continue, ... we will still be able to make fairly substantial reductions after these elections - in the spring or summer of next year," he said.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Iraqis also hope for a "speedy" withdrawal of U.S. troops and urged Rumsfeld to accelerate the training of the Iraqi security forces that are to replace them.

Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, told Al-Arabiya television that his government is talking with U.S. officials about ways for American troops to withdraw completely from 10 Iraqi cities and part of Baghdad by December.

At the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Barry Venable said Casey's remarks about possible U.S. troop reductions in Iraq next year reflect continuing Defense Department policy rather than a shift in thinking.

"What he said was, if the conditions are such next year, then a troop reduction is in the realm of the possible," said Venable, a Defense Department spokesman. "He said that before. Others have said that before. But there is no plan to reduce or withdraw our forces. Nothing is different."

Rumsfeld met with al-Jaafari, who declared that "the great desire of the Iraqi people is to see the coalition forces be on their way out as they take more responsibility."

The level of U.S. troop strength in Iraq remains contingent on the ability of Iraqi security forces to take on the insurgents, Venable said. A Pentagon report issued last week found that only half the Iraqi police and two-thirds of Iraqi military units are fully capable of carrying out their missions.

"They're not ready," Venable said.

In a briefing last week, Assistant Defense Secretary Peter Rodman repeated that any U.S. troop withdrawal would be determined by circumstance, not a pre-set timetable. But he and Rumsfeld described Iraqi political and economic progress in glowing terms. Rumsfeld noted that while the U.S.-led coalition still has problems with foreign fighters coming across the Iraqi-Syrian border and other military concerns, 84 percent of recent insurgent attacks have been confined to Baghdad and three other Iraqi provinces.

A British government memo released this month concluded that the United States plans to reduce its force in Iraq from more than 130,000 to 66,000 by the middle of next year.

An Army-commissioned study by the Rand Corp., also released this month, concluded that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have stretched Army manpower so thin that the service is incapable of meeting major threats elsewhere.

There is a bipartisan move in the House to increase overall Army troop strength by 10,000 soldiers to ease the strain.

Recent public opinion polls show approval for President Bush's conduct of the war as low as 37 percent, with up to 57 percent of those surveyed disapproving.

Meanwhile, Iraq's most feared militant group said yesterday that it had killed two kidnapped Algerian diplomats because of Algeria's ties to the United States and its crackdown on Islamic extremists.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.