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US Troop Drawdown In Iraq Entirely Probable Says Rice

US soldiers receiving a mission briefing in Iraq. Copyright AFP.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Mar 27, 2006
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seeking to reassure a worried US public that Washington had an exit strategy in Iraq, said Sunday a "significant" drawdown of US troops is "entirely probable" within a year.

Speaking on NBC television's "Meet the Press" program, Rice sought to balance concern generated by President George W. Bush's comments last week that US forces would remain in Iraq after his term ends in January 2009.

"I think it's entirely probable that we will see a significant drawdown of American forces over the next year," she said, citing the assessment of the US commander, General George Casey. "It's all dependent on events on the ground."

Although the US administration refuses to set a timetable for the withdrawal of the 133,000 US troops in Iraq, Pentagon officials have expressed hope they could cut the force level to 100,000 by the of 2006.

Domestic support for the Iraq war has steadily eroded with polls showing two-thirds of Americans disapproving of Bush's policies that are likely to become a central issue in congressional elections in November.

But asked at a news conference Tuesday whether all US military personnel in Iraq would someday come home, Bush raised more eyebrows by saying, "That will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."

The White House sought to play down his remarks, saying they referred to the pullout of the very last troops from Iraq, where more than 2,300 Americans have been killed since the March 2003 invasion.

Rice said Sunday that Bush meant to say "some American troops may well be there for the next president" but as Iraqi forces stand up, the need for US support will diminish correspondingly.

She acknowledged that Iraqi insurgents, still battling US-led forces three years after the move to oust Saddam Hussein, were taking a toll with their attacks and "might be able to do that for some time".

But she said the insurgents had been unable to derail the Iraqi political process or spark a civil war despite an outbreak of Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence following the bombing of a Shiite shrine last month.

"During this most recent uptick of sectarian violence the Iraqi army behaved very, very well," Rice said.

"We see the progress of Iraqi forces, we see the progress of the political process and there's every reason to believe" that American forces can come down, the chief US diplomat said.

Rice also moved to allay concern over delays in the formation of a permanent Iraqi government, with majority Shiite Muslims, Kurds and minority Sunnis still jockeying 3-1/2 months after legislative elections.

"The political system is making progress. I know it's slower than we would like it to be," she told the "Fox News Sunday" program, adding the Iraqis were developing their rules and institutions at the same time.

"This is a complicated process that is likely to push them very much further forward once it is completed than just having people identified as prime minister and defense minister and so forth," Rice said.

Rice turned aside a suggestion that she intervene directly in the political talks, saying US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was providing ample support.

"When it is time for the United States to intervene at my level, I'm quite certain that I can assure you that we will. But right now, Iraqis need to talk to Iraqis and come to terms with some of these extremely difficult issues."

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley echoed Bush's call for formation of the government "as soon as possible" and said the Iraqis should be coming close.

"They've set the goal at the end of March. That's about a week or so from now. They ought to meet it," Hadley said on CBS television's "Face the Nation" program.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Northern Iraq Operation Nets 40 Insurgents Including Al-Qaeda Members
Kirkuk, Iraq, March 26 (AFP) Mar 26, 2006
An Iraqi army operation backed by US forces arrested 40 suspected insurgents, including Al-Qaeda supporters, in northern Iraq, an Iraqi general said on Sunday. The operation, which lasted for three days, was carried out by the Iraqi army with air support from US forces and took place around Hawija.

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