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US mulls slowing Iraq troop drawdown to protect gains

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Jan 31, 2008
The US command in Iraq appears leaning toward freezing further troop reductions this summer as security gains in the country remain fragile, despite the deep unpopularity of the five-year-old war.

President George W. Bush has given his tacit backing to the possible slowdown, after top Iraq commander General David Petraeus suggested it was now his thinking in an interview Sunday.

Speaking Thursday in Las Vegas, Bush noted that roughly 20,000 of the recent peak of 160,000 US troops in Iraq were expected to come home by July.

But, Bush added, "we have come too far in this important theater in this war on terror not to make sure that we succeed.

"And therefore any further troop reductions will be based upon commanders and conditions."

Petraeus could pitch for a midyear stall to the drawdown when he presents his recommendations to Bush in April, as he studies whether the surge's gains in increasing security could be left at risk by a smaller force.

"We are working out right now what the possibilities are," Petraeus, the architect of the surge effort, said Sunday on CNN.

"We will need to have some time to let things settle a bit, if you will," he said.

"We think it would be prudent to do some period of assessment, then to make decisions, and then, of course, to carry out further withdrawals if the conditions obtained allow us to do that."

The move, however, will likely to add fuel to the issue just as the US presidential campaign gets in full swing, giving Democrats, who advocate a steady pullout from Iraq, more ammunition to attack the Bush administration's policy.

Washington has planned to reduce the current 160,000-strong deployment down to around 130,000 during the summer, the level prior to the "surge" troop hike announced by Bush in January 2007.

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the number two chief of US forces in Iraq, has also suggested that process could be slowed at midyear.

"What we don't want to do is suddenly pull out a whole bunch of US forces and suddenly turn things over to the Iraqi security forces. I would like to see it done very slowly over time," Odierno said recently.

But opinions have been split on the issue in the Pentagon.

Army Chief of Staff General George Casey has asked to lighten the burden on the army, which bears the brunt of the combat missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who earlier said that he hoped to keep up the current pace of drawdown in the second half of 2008, was noncommittal Thursday on whether he backed Petraeus' view.

"We haven't had the opportunity to discuss it," Gates said.

"The guidance that I gave him is that he should make his evaluation and recommendations based solely on the conditions on the ground in Iraq."

"And as I have indicated before, the president will also have available to him the views of the commander of Centcom (the Central Command, in charge of the Middle East), and the Joint Chiefs, and I will have my own view."

"And the president will have the benefit of all that come March and April in terms of making a decision," Gates said.

Bush's main worry is to avoid a resurgence of violence, a top administration official told reporters.

The official suggested that Bush would not take the risk of compromising the gains made already by the surge, with one eye looking toward ending his presidency on a successful note. Bush's second term as president ends in January 2009.

In his State of the Union speech Monday, Bush said the troop surge had hit US enemies in Iraq hard.

But he warned that a hasty troop withdrawal would ruin the fragile political and security progress there.

"Having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow this to happen," Bush said.

"Our objective in the coming year is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007."

But, with elections for the White House and Congress looming in November, the Democrats are pressing hard for a troop drawdown.

"Halting the modest reduction in US surge troop levels that has been underway in Iraq demonstrates the president's insistence on a war without end and will further undermine our military readiness," Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.

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Swedish airline to resume flights to Iraq
Stockholm (AFP) Jan 31, 2008
Swedish aviation authorities said Thursday they would allow one airline to resume flights to northern Iraq, nearly six months after all Swedish flights to the country were grounded following a suspected missile attack on a plane.

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