Wednesday, June 22, 2005

U.S. troops to stay in Iraq despite 'progress'


U.S. troops to stay in Iraq despite 'progress'

By Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Despite reported successes against the insurgency in Iraq, a top U.S. military commander said on Tuesday the United States was unlikely to reduce its 135,000 troops there before elections late this year.

"At this point, I would not be prepared to recommend a draw-down prior to the election, certainly not any significant numbers," Army Lt. Gen. John Vines, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters.

But Vines said significant reductions could begin early next year following a referendum on a planned constitution this October and a subsequent national election on a new Iraqi government in December.

Vines spoke a day after President Bush acknowledged the Iraq war was "tough" going. But Bush refused to back down from assertions that progress was being made.

With his popularity falling amid mounting casualties, Bush will spend the next few weeks defending the war and will make a speech to mark next Tuesday's anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty.

Since the United States formally turned over power to Iraq on June 28, 2004, more than 860 U.S. troops have been killed.

Vines said, "Since that time, there's been significant progress throughout the country."

More than 1,720 U.S. troops have died in Iraq and with 80 deaths, May was the deadliest month for American forces since January. The continued deployment of 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq also is putting strains on the U.S. military and the Army has fallen far behind in its recruiting.

Vines said the insurgency was fueled by foreign fighters from such nations as Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and was "driven in large measure by money." Ordinary Iraqis were paid from $150 to several hundred to plant bombs.

Bush has come under fire for an overly optimistic view of the war. Many have urged him to make a public acknowledgment of the difficulties facing the United States.


The Democrats' leading foreign policy spokesman, Sen. Joseph Biden, warned on Tuesday that Iraq's disintegration is a "real possibility" and proposed a plan to try and salvage the U.S. military intervention.

In a speech, Biden said the insurgency "remains as bad as it was a year ago."

An influential Republican lawmaker, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, however, said the U.S. effort in Iraq ranked as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being disaster.

"The key to it is telling the American people it's going to be long and it's going to be hard," McCain told NBC's "Today" show.

Vines warned that polls in the United States showing a majority of Americans now oppose the U.S. military presence in Iraq suggested "they don't have a good perception of what is at stake here."

"There is a bit of a complacency with elements of our population," he said.

Speaking as U.S. and Iraq troops moved against insurgents in Iraq, Vines said the insurgency currently appeared to be "static," neither shrinking nor growing.

"I don't have any reason to believe there is going to be a significant change in four months, absent a political breakthrough," Vines said. "I suspect we will probably draw down capability after the elections because Iraqi security forces are more capable."

He said U.S. forces could be cut by four or five brigades early next year. An average American brigade numbers about 3,000 troops.

Some U.S. lawmakers, including a few from Bush's own Republican Party, have called for a deadline to begin withdrawing American troops.

But the White House and Pentagon have rejected that saying insurgents would simply wait for a withdrawal and then renew their violence.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "much progress" had been made in Iraq in the past year.

"There will no doubt be frustrating delays and difficult setbacks. But let us not lose sight of the fact that all over Iraq today, Iraqis are debating nearly every aspect of their political future."