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Cut in U.S. troops in Iraq not assured

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The Pentagon said yesterday that U.S. troop drawdowns from Iraq are not assured after the nation's Dec. 15 elections and that levels may even go up, if top commanders need more manpower.

Army Gen. George Casey, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, is expected to make a troop level recommendation in 2006 once a permanent government takes office in Baghdad Dec. 31.

Gen. Casey initially held out the hope for "substantial" reductions. But he backed off those predictions after prominent Sunnis failed to sign on to Iraq's new constitution, dashing hopes that that minority group would quit the insurgency and join the new government. The constitution passed, nonetheless, winning large majorities of Shi'ites and Kurds.

Larry Di Rita, spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, held out the possibility of more troops as the Bush administration dampened expectations for a big U.S. exodus.

"I don't want you to be surprised again when for whatever reason, Gen. Casey says, 'I might want more. I'll stick where I am, in steady state,' or 'I'll ask for less,'" Mr. Di Rita told reporters at the Pentagon. "And those are his three choices."

The Pentagon had maintained a troop level of about 138,000 until late summer, when the number bumped up to 160,000 to provide more security for the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum. It appears the level will stay there until at least after the December elections, even though local Iraqi forces now exceed 210,000.

One nagging problem facing the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is a proven cadre of commanders with good leadership skills. The United States disbanded Saddam Hussein's armed forces, but some joined the insurgency, providing expertise on tactics and bomb making.

But this week, the interim Iraqi government made an overture to old regime hands, asking midlevel officers in the defunct Republican Guard to rejoin.

Mr. Di Rita said the Pentagon backs the offer, saying it may bring more Sunnis into the political process. Military sources say the Sunnis are underrepresented for their population in the new ISF.

"It has potentially some positives associated with it," he said. "I understand that there is a need, always, for experienced midlevel officers in the Iraqi army. A significant percentage of those -- I couldn't say how many -- would likely be Sunni, and that would make the army more secular, perhaps, than it is right now [and] would give that segment of the population greater engagement in the governmental progress."

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