- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

President Bush said yesterday that if newly elected Iraqi leaders make progress on security and political fronts, he will be prepared to discuss further reductions of U.S. troop levels later this year.

Meeting with military leaders at the Pentagon, he said the United States has begun reducing its Iraq force by nearly 25,000 troops, including about 20,000 deployed to assist with security for the December parliamentary elections.

“The commanders have recently determined that we can reduce our combat forces in Iraq from 17 to 15 brigades,” Mr. Bush said. “This adjustment will result in a net decrease of several thousand troops below the pre-election base line of 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.”

The reason the force levels can be reduced is “because the Iraqis are more capable” and the U.S. mission this year “is to continue to hand over more and more territory and more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces,” Mr. Bush said.

The president repeated his position that he will make decisions on troop levels based upon conditions in Iraq and the recommendations of commanders, “not based by false political timetables in Washington, D.C.”

“I’m not going to let politics get in the way of doing the right thing in Iraq, and the American people have got to understand that,” he said.

Also part of the 90-minute meeting with the president were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, and the vice chairman, Adm. Edmund Giambastiani.

Military brass in Iraq, including Army Gens. John Abizaid; Marty Dempsey, the commander of the Multinational Security Transition Command; and George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq, appeared via closed-circuit television.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cheney, who made an unannounced stop in Iraq before Christmas as part of a Middle East trip, said Iraqis were making progress toward assuming security operations.

“As the Iraqi army gains strength and experience, and as the political process advances, we’ll be able to decrease troop levels without losing our capacity to defeat the terrorists,” he said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“Some in Washington are yielding to the temptation to downplay the ongoing threat to our country, and to back away from the business at hand,” Mr. Cheney said.

“This is perhaps a natural impulse, as time passes [after September 11, 2001] and the alarms don’t sound.”

Mr. Cheney said: “America has been protected not by luck but by sensible policy decisions by decisive action at home and abroad and by round-the-clock efforts on the part of people in law enforcement, intelligence, the military and homeland security.”

The vice president called Mr. Bush’s decision to intercept “a certain category of terrorist-linked international communications” important to national security.

“There are no communications more important to the safety of the United States than those related to al Qaeda that have one end in the United States. If we’d been able to do this before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who flew a jet into the Pentagon.”

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