The US defense secretary said he hoped US troop levels in Iraq could be cut to 100,000 by the end of next year, well beyond the cuts US President George W. Bush has approved, while an al-Qaeda front group warned it would hunt down Sunni Arab tribal leaders who cooperate with the US and its Iraqi partners.
Stressing that he was not expressing an administration plan but only his hopes, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said it was possible that conditions in Iraq would improve enough to merit much deeper troop cuts than currently are scheduled for next year.
Asked at a news conference on Friday whether he was suggesting that today's level of about 169,000 US troops might be lowered to about 100,000 by the end of next year, Gates replied: "That would be the math."
He quickly added, however, that because "there is no script" in war, his hoped-for cuts could vanish.
It was the first time a member of Bush's war Cabinet had suggested in public such deep reductions, which perhaps was meant as a conciliatory gesture to anti-war Democrats and some wary Republicans in Congress who have been pushing for troop reductions, a change in the US mission and an end to the war.
Democratic leaders seized on a White House report sent to Congress on Friday as evidence that Bush's war policy is failing. The assessment showed that the Iraqi government was making satisfactory progress toward meeting nine of 18 political and military goals, which is only one more satisfactory grade than the first such report showed in July.
"As hard as they may have tried to spin it, today's assessment by the White House on the political situation in Iraq once again shows that the president's flawed escalation policy is not working," said the majority Democrats' leader in the Senate, Harry Reid. "It certainly does not justify keeping 130,000 soldiers mired in an open-ended civil war as the president has chosen to do."
Meanwhile, an al-Qaeda front group warned it would kill Sunni Arab tribal leaders who cooperate with the US and its Iraqi partners in the wake of the assassination of the leader of the revolt against the terror movement.
In a separate statement, the Islamic State of Iraq announced a new offensive in Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting that began this week. The statement said the offensive was in honor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by a US airstrike in June last year.
The statements were posted on Friday and yesterday on Islamist Web sites and among other things claimed responsibility for the assassination of Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who spearheaded the uprising against al-Qaeda in Anbar Province west of the capital.
In claiming responsibility for Abu Risha's death on Thursday, the Islamic State said it had formed "special security committees" to track down and "assassinate the tribal figures, the traitors, who stained the reputations of the real tribes by submitting to the soldiers of the Crusade" and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
US officials hope Abu Risha's death will not reverse the tide against al-Qaeda, which began last year when he organized Sunni clans to fight the terror movement, producing a dramatic turnaround in Ramadi and other parts of Anbar.
Some 1,500 mourners called for revenge as they buried Abu Risha on Friday.
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