Top general anticipates cut in troops

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The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff yesterday said the Bush administration predicts positive developments in Iraq in 2006 that will allow U.S. troops to vacate territory and turn counterinsurgency missions over to local forces.

The remarks by Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace suggested there will be more announced troop reductions in the new year as a follow-up to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s announcement Friday that Army brigades in Iraq will dip from 17 to 15, or by about 7,000 soldiers.

“So if things go the way we expect them to, as more Iraqi units stand up, we’ll be able to bring our troops down and turn over that territory to the Iraqis,” Gen. Pace said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Also yesterday, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave full backing to President Bush’s recently disclosed policy of having the National Security Agency, without a court order, intercept communications between terror suspects overseas and persons living in America.

Saying he was not personally aware of the warrantless eavesdropping while secretary of state, Mr. Powell told ABC’s “This Week” that “in the aftermath of 9/11, the American people had one concern and that was to protect us. And so I see absolutely nothing wrong with the president authorizing these kinds of actions.”

He said his “own judgment” is that it would not have been difficult to obtain emergency warrants from a special court under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

But Mr. Powell added: “I don’t think anybody objects to the president doing this. He was trying to protect the nation. And we have done things like this in the past.”

Christmas Day in Iraq saw sporadic violence, with one U.S. soldier killed by a roadside bomb.

The American death toll has exceeded 2,100, but commanders hope the Iraq parliamentary elections Dec. 15, in which Sunnis participated more than expected, will mean fewer attacks next year.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who controls the largest bloc of Kurdish members of the transition government, met yesterday with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Mr. Khalilzad is trying to convince the three major ethnic factions to form a unity government.

Mr. Rumsfeld said Friday that troop reductions will bring the deployed number below a base force of 138,000.

Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq, later said the force level should shrink to 130,000 by March, once a rotation of Marine and Army troops is completed. He said suicide bombings, the most lethal attacks, stood at 16 this month, down substantially from 60 in June.

Gen. Pace warned yesterday that after a reduction personnel levels could spike again, as they did for the Iraqi elections, if the security situations worsens.

“What we have is a plan that allows us to keep what we have today out for the foreseeable future and then off-ramps and on-ramps based on the conditions on the ground,” he said on Fox.

Gen. Pace said Gen. Casey and his commanders do a monthly analysis of security and political developments, and “they then determine how many troops they need to get the job done.”

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