Sat, Dec 24, 2005 - Page 1 News List

US to begin scaling back Iraq troops: Rumsfeld

REDUCING NUMBERS The defense secretary said that two brigades of troops will be withdrawn from Iraq as domestic security forces are beginning to perform well

AFP , FALLUJAH, IRAQ

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced yesterday that the US would withdraw two combat brigades, totaling between 5,000 and 9,000 soldiers, from Iraq by next spring.

That would bring the number of US troops under the level of 138,000 for the first time since April last year, a year after US-led forces first invaded the country.

"President [George W.] Bush has authorized an adjustment in US combat brigades in Iraq from 17 to 15," Rumsfeld said.

His remarks came just a day after British Prime Minister Tony Blair raised the prospects of beginning a British troop pulldown next year.

Blair, who was also on a surprise visit to troops ahead of Christmas, remarked that he was pleased to learn of their high regard for Iraqi forces.

"This is a very hopeful sign because obviously the whole purpose is to build up the capability of the armed forces and the police so we can then draw down our own forces," Blair said.

"This is the whole purpose of the strategy. Political process can only be buttressed by a strong security aspect to it," he said.

The prime minister refused to be drawn on a timetable, but yesterday's first edition of British tabloid the Sun said the process would begin in May. London's the Times claimed 1,000 troops had already been pulled back from frontline duties as the first stage of withdrawal.

Rumsfeld, addressing US soldiers on an unannounced visit to this Sunni bastion 50km west of Baghdad, said "the adjustments being announced are the recognition of the Iraqi people's progress in assuming added responsibility for their country."

The US has maintained that it would reduce its military presence in Iraq in line with the build-up of Iraq's newly formed security forces.

Washington had already announced the withdrawal of reinforcements sent to Iraq to ensure that the Oct. 15 referendum on the constitution and the Dec. 15 general elections went off smoothly.

"The effect of these adjustments will reduce forces in Iraq by the spring of next year below the current level of 160,000 during the elections period and below the 138,000 baseline that existed prior to the most recent elections," Rumsfeld said.

The defense secretary also alluded to further reductions during the course of the year.

"We anticipate future coalition force-level discussions at some point next year, after the new Iraqi government is in place and is prepared to discuss the future," he added.

A new government is expected to be installed early next year in the wake of the elections whose final results are not yet known.

"Let me be very clear: The challenges ahead, military, political, economic, will not be easy. The US as all of you know did not come to Iraq for oil, not to occupy. We came here only to help," Rumsfeld also said.

Speaking about Fallujah, Rumsfeld praised progress made there, saying it has "some of the highest voter registration and turn-out rates in the country and has increasingly capable and confident Iraqi security forces in the streets helping to maintain order and to hunt down terrorists."

The defense secretary flew in to Iraq to visit US troops ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Rumsfeld was also expected to meet with Iraqi leaders yesterday to discuss the ongoing political process and the formation of a new government.

"Our interest, as a country, is that the process produces a set of people that are going to pull that country together towards the center and not pull it apart," Rumsfeld said on Thursday.

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