Friday, June 23, 2006

Top US General sees troop cuts in Iraq this year - despite Republicans voting against reductions

General sees troop cuts in Iraq this year
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The top U.S. commander in Iraq expressed confidence on Thursday the military will be able to cut the U.S. force there over the rest of the year, as the Pentagon considered reductions of a few thousand troops in the coming months.

"I'm confident that we will be able to continue to take reductions over the course of this year," Army Gen. George Casey told a Pentagon briefing after meetings with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Casey did not say how deep these reductions would be or when they would come.

Rumsfeld said Casey has not yet made his long-awaited recommendation on future troop levels, and would do so after discussions with the leaders of Iraq's fledgling unity government.

A 127,000-strong American force is serving in Iraq more than three years into a war in which about 2,500 U.S. troops have died.

Rumsfeld said the U.S. government has asked Casey and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad to work with the Iraqi government "to develop a way ahead that they're comfortable with and that we're comfortable."

Defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. force could be cut by a few thousand troops in the coming months. One official cautioned not to expect massive cuts.

The Pentagon has announced a series of units scheduled to deploy into Iraq as part of the ongoing rotation of troops in and out of the country. The official said perhaps two of these brigades -- each numbering 3,500 -- might be held back.

Defense officials previously said the Pentagon had considered, among other options, dropping to about 100,000 this year, but any cuts depended on circumstances in Iraq.


Casey also amplified on past U.S. accusations about Iranian interference in Iraq, saying there has been "a noticeable increase since January."

Casey said he was "quite confident" the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, were providing weapons, roadside bomb technology and training to a wide variety of Shi'ite extremist groups across southern Iraq. Casey said there has been training conducted in Iran and in some cases probably in Lebanon.

"I have no evidence that there are Iranians in Iraq that are actually directing attacks," Casey added, saying they are allowing others to "operate as their surrogates."

Casey said the security situation in Iraq and the continued progress in developing U.S.-trained Iraqi government security forces were factors in the ability to shrink the U.S. force.

Casey last year forecast a "fairly substantial" reduction in U.S. troops this spring and summer if Iraq's political process goes well and progress is made in developing Iraqi security forces.

Casey noted the U.S. force currently is about 12,000 below where it was when he last made that prediction in July 2005.

"Whether that's fairly substantial enough, I'll leave to your judgment," Casey said.

"I think there will be continued, gradual reductions here as the Iraqis take on a larger and larger role," Casey added.

Rumsfeld said any drawdown might be interrupted by temporary troop increases as conditions warrant.

"Right now, I think we have 126,900 or something. It's come down from a high of 160 (thousand in late 2005). But it could very well go back up at some point. So it very likely will go down and up and down and up depending on the circumstances and depending on the needs," Rumsfeld said.

A Germany-based Army brigade due to have deployed to Iraq this month already has been put on hold, and one official said it could be sent into Iraq in a couple of months for a slightly shorter stay than the usual year-long deployment for Army units.