The US could withdraw as many as 50,000 troops from Iraq by the end of the year because there are enough Iraqi forces ready to begin taking control of parts of the country, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told the Washington Post.
In an interview with the newspaper that was published yesterday, Talabani said he would discuss reductions in US forces during a private meeting with President George W. Bush and said he thought the US could pull some troops out immediately.
"We think that America has the full right to move some forces from Iraq to their country because I think we can replace them [with] our forces," Talabani said. "In my opinion, at least from 40,000 to 50,000 American troops can be [with-drawn] by the end of this year."
After the newspaper contacted the White House and Pentagon for comment, a senior adviser to Talabani called the Post to say the Iraqi president did not intend to suggest a specific timeline.
"He is afraid ... this might put the notion of a timetable on this thing," the adviser told the newspaper. "The exact figure of what would be required will undeniably depend on the level of insurgency [and] the level of Iraqi capability."
Bush has refused to set a timetable for reducing the number of US troops in Iraq.
White House adviser Dan Bartlett told the paper, "We share the same view: As Iraqis build up their capabilities to defend their country, fewer US troops will be needed to complete our mission. The president will continue to work with Iraqi leaders and base his military decisions on the advice of commanders in the field and the secretary of defense."
Insurgents shelled the heavily fortified Green Zone and other parts of central Baghdad early yesterday. US commanders said more than 400 suspects had been captured during the offensive to retake the northern town of Tal Afar.
Two mortar rounds exploded near a military hospital in the Green Zone that houses the Iraqi government, parliament, the US and other foreign missions.
Security in the zone was boosted earlier this month after reports that suicide bombers were trying to penetrate the zone.
Police said at least two other rounds exploded in Baghdad.
US commanders in Tal Afar said that over 400 suspected rebels were in custody as a result of recent offensives there.
Meanwhile, three Turkish engineers kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq two months ago have been released near the central city of Beiji on Monday and have returned to Turkey, state-run Anatolian news agency said yesterday.
The three men were shown on a video released to Arabic television last month in which their captors said they were issuing a "last warning" to companies dealing with US-led forces in Iraq.
"They didn't push us around at all, but every night they threatened to kill us, saying `we will cut off your heads,'" the agency quoted one of the men, Fatih Yigit, as saying after reaching the Turkish border.
"The only thing our captors wanted was for our firm to pull out of Iraq," he said.
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