U.S. to cut troop strength in Iraq slightly

Rumsfeld announces that about 7,000 will not be deployed as scheduled


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi military forces are enjoying new success blocking insurgents from entering the country from Syria, U.S. officials said yesterday, a key improvement that led to the announcement of the first formal reduction in American troop levels.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced the modest draw-down of about 7,000 U.S. troops from brigades that were to deploy here but will now remain in the United States or be diverted to Kuwait.

The total number of U.S. forces in Iraq has hovered around 160,000 over the past month, reflecting a buildup for last week's parliamentary elections.

Rumsfeld's announcement means that by early 2006, the number of American troops in Iraq will drop below 138,000 for the first time in a year.

Although the reduction is slight and will take place nearly three years after the U.S. invasion, it will enable President Bush to claim a measure of progress, perhaps venting some domestic pressure for a drawdown while holding to Bush's insistence that it be based on conditions on the ground.

It will also give U.S. commanders an opportunity to argue their troops do not represent a permanent occupation force.

However, analysts said it would take a steady pattern of cuts to convince Iraqis that the Americans really intend to leave.

Military officials including Rumsfeld, who paid a surprise visit to Iraq this week, praised Iraqi forces for their work during parliamentary elections Dec. 15 and said they have grown more adept at controlling the porous Syrian border.

"We feel very pleased by the progress of the Iraqi forces and the role they are playing providing security," said Rumsfeld, flanked by Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq.

U.S. officials for months have complained that Syria has not tried to control its border with Iraq. But Casey said U.S.-Iraqi operations along Iraq's western border aimed at preventing potential suicide bombers from entering the country had paid off and that Iraqis were now exercising greater control over unruly towns and villages in the border area.

Although insurgent attacks killed four U.S. soldiers in Baghdad over the past two days and 14 Iraqis northeast of Baghdad yesterday, Casey said the number of suicide attacks dropped from 60 in June to 26 in November. There have been 16 so far this month. He said that was evidence border-control efforts were succeeding.

"We had to credibly say they had control over that border before we could offer up some of our guys," he said.

The decision not to deploy the two U.S. brigades also reflected political pressures in Washington, where Bush's approval ratings have been battered for months.

In the past month, a concerted effort by the White House to explain its position, coupled with heavy turnout for the Iraq election, led to a partial rebound for Bush in national polls. Yesterday's announcement is encouraging for military families just days before the Christmas holiday.

Military experts said it was a good time to send a signal to Iraqis that U.S. forces would gradually leave, but the Iraqi reaction would probably be muted.

"There's not going to be dancing in the streets," said Gary Anderson, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who has advised the Defense Department on Iraqi security matters. While insurgents might seek to claim credit for driving U.S. forces out, most Iraqis are unlikely "to pay a lot of attention to this right now, until they see a slow, steady trend over the course of six months."

Anderson said he believes the announcement is the first step in what is likely to be a slow and gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces. More U.S. troops could be pulled out over the coming year from relatively secure regions in the north and south of the country, replaced by Iraqi forces.

"The Sunni Triangle, the harder areas of Baghdad and Al Anbar province are probably going to be the last to see this happen, and that's at least a couple of years away," Anderson said.

Under the plan outlined by Rumsfeld, portions of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division would remain at home in Fort Riley, Kansas. The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, based in Baumholder, Germany, will remain in Kuwait as a backup force. The deployment of both brigades had been halted earlier this month. Yesterday's announcement formalized the change of plans.

Casey in recent months has said the presence of the U.S.-led coalition could be fueling the insurgency and undermining the readiness of Iraqi forces.

"In this type of war, more is not necessarily better," he said at a briefing after Rumsfeld spoke. "Less is better because it doesn't feed the notion of occupation or the culture of dependency. It doesn't lengthen the time for the Iraqis to be self-reliant. And it doesn't expose coalition forces to risk when there are Iraqi forces who are capable of standing up and doing it, and who want to do it."

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