U.S. Signals Spring Start for Pullout

By Ann Scott Tyson and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 28, 2005

BAGHDAD, July 27 -- The top U.S. military leader in Iraq said Wednesday there could be substantial withdrawals of some of the 135,000 U.S. troops in the country as early as next spring.

Gen. George W. Casey said that despite continued lethal attacks by insurgents, the security situation in Iraq had improved. He reiterated a position he had taken earlier this year on the possible decrease in the U.S. military presence during a one-day visit by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for meetings with Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.

Casey spoke on a day in which officials reported that 16 people were killed by insurgents, including two Algerian diplomats who had been kidnapped last week.

"If the political process continues to go positively, and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll still be able to take some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer," Casey said before meeting with Jafari.

While U.S. officials have said recently that troop cutbacks are possible, Rumsfeld's visit gave special focus to the prospects for withdrawals. Rumsfeld and other officials have rejected making a deadline public, but a secret British defense memo leaked this month in London said U.S. officials favored "a relatively bold reduction in force numbers."

Rumsfeld did not discuss troop levels specifically on Wednesday, but he linked the overall security situation to Iraqi military training and political progress toward completing a draft constitution by next month.

Failing to meet the deadline for passage of a new constitution "would be very harmful to the momentum that's necessary," Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him to Baghdad. "We have troops on the ground there, people get killed," he said.

Iraqi leaders have also said consistently that U.S. troops should leave as soon as the U.S.-trained Iraqi army is ready to fight the insurgency and defend the country, but have estimated that it could take from 18 months to five years.

"The great desire of the Iraqi people is to see the coalition forces be on their way out as they take more responsibility," Jafari said at a news conference with Rumsfeld after their noon meeting in Baghdad.

But Jafari said a withdrawal would require "picking up the pace of training Iraqi forces," as well as carefully synchronizing the U.S. withdrawal as Iraqi forces took charge of different parts of the country.

"The withdrawal should be whenever the Iraqi forces are ready to stand up," Jafari said. "We don't want the Multinational Force to have a surprise departure.''

Earlier this month, a report prepared by Gen. Peter Pace, the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that only a "small number" of Iraqi forces were capable of fighting insurgents without U.S. assistance.

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