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U.S. is optimistic about withdrawal

Associated Press
Published November 24, 2005

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and military leaders are sounding optimistic notes about scaling back U.S. troops in Iraq next year, as congressional calls for withdrawal get louder.

Contingency plans for a phased withdrawal include proposals to further postpone or cancel the deployment of a Fort Riley, Kan., brigade and an option to put a combat brigade in nearby Kuwait in case it is needed, the Associated Press reported without citing a source.

While military leaders would not confirm the size of possible withdrawals, conversations with defense officials and analysts suggest troop levels could drop below 100,000 next year, contingent on the progress of the Iraqi government and its security forces. There are currently about 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

On Wednesday, Pentagon officials would not confirm any reduction plans. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said there has been "very positive" development of Iraqi security forces, and he added that "we plan for every possible contingency," including a smaller coalition force.

President Bush has refused to set a withdrawal timetable, and the administration has consistently said U.S. troops will remain as long as needed. Led by Vice President Cheney, the administration has opposed last week's call by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., for a U.S. withdrawal within six months.

Opinion polls indicate public support for the war has fallen in recent weeks, fed by events such as the 2,000th U.S. military death there and allegations of the secret imprisonment and torture of some Iraqi prisoners by the Iraqi government.

In recent days, some administration and military officials have made positive-sounding comments about a possible withdrawal.

Lt. Gen. John Vines, chief of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, said Iraqi security forces - which number about 212,000 now - are making excellent progress, an oft-cited precondition for removing U.S. troops. He said 36 Iraqi battalions are responsible for their own areas of operation.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others have said they expect U.S. forces to drop back down to the base level of about 138,000 after the Dec. 15 election for Iraq's new government. So far, the Pentagon has identified 92,000 troops who will be rotated into Iraq through mid 2008, though Rumsfeld has cautioned that should not be taken as a final number.

Elsewhere . . .

TRIAL ON TRACK?: Defense attorneys in the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven co-defendants are expected to attend Monday's session despite an earlier threat to boycott the proceedings after two team members were assassinated, a U.S. official said Wednesday. However, an official from the Iraqi High Tribunal said talks with defense lawyers about their security were still ongoing.

SUNNI FAMILY ATTACKED: Dozens of gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms killed a prominent Sunni Arab tribal leader and three of his sons in their beds early Wednesday morning. Khadim Sarhid al-Hemaiyem, who lived on the outskirts of Baghdad, was the leader of the Sunni Batta tribe and the brother of a candidate in the Dec. 15 election.

[Last modified November 24, 2005, 00:19:08]

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