- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that commanders are planning further troop reductions in Iraq despite ongoing violence that has killed hundreds of civilians after the February bombing of the Shi’ite Golden Mosque.

Asked about President Bush’s remark Tuesday that U.S. troops will be in Iraq until at least 2009, the year he leaves office, Mr. Rumsfeld said there could still be Americans training the Iraqi security forces (ISF). It was a clear signal that the defense secretary expects that by that time the United States’ combat role will be greatly reduced.

Mr. Bush provided no context for his remark about troops in Iraq in 2009, leaving some with the impression that substantial cuts will not happen, as commanders have promised. And it stirred more complaints from Democrats that the administration is not shifting anti-insurgent responsibilities from Americans to Iraqi combatants fast enough.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s careful remarks yesterday seemed designed to reset the debate to an assumption of gradual troop cuts that began in January, if conditions permit.

“I would anticipate, as we’ve said, that as the Iraqi security forces continue to take over more and more responsibility, we’ll continue to reduce down our forces, and that any stress on the force would be eased rather than increased,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.

Pressed about the Bush prediction, he said, “We may be helping to train and equip some forces in Iraq in 2009. Are we making plans to do that? We’re making plans to assist the Iraqis and the Afghans in training and equipping their forces so that they can take over the responsibility. And as the president said, it’s conditions-based. I’m not going to get into speculating about specific numbers or on specific dates.”

There are about 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, down from 160,000 during the December parliamentary elections. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top American commander in Iraq, said in late December that the level should be down to about 130,000 by the end of this month. He is contemplating further cuts this year, depending on the maturation of the Iraqi forces, which stand at about 270,000 personnel.

Mr. Rumsfeld added, “We anticipate that they’ll go down. And the reason we anticipate they’ll go down is because we think the government will be formed, and it will meet with reasonable acceptance and that the Iraqi security forces will continue to be performing well and that we will continue to pass over battle space, bases and responsibility to the Iraqi security forces.”

In Baghdad, Army Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch tried to dispel various reports that stepped-up sectarian violence has plunged Iraq into total chaos.CQ He said al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, continues to try to provoke a civil war by killing civilians. The Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra triggered much of the recent killings.

But “there is not widespread violence across Iraq,” Gen. Lynch said. “There is not. Seventy-five percent of the attacks still take place in Baghdad, Al Anbar [in the west] or Salahuddin [north of Baghdad]. And in the other 15 provinces, they all average less than six attacks a day, and 12 of those provinces average less than two attacks a day. So the idea that Baghdad is the center of gravity for the enemy’s operations is indeed a valid idea, but the concern that all of Iraq is experiencing widespread violence is incorrect.”

Mr. Rumsfeld, a member of Mr. Bush’s original Cabinet, continues to face questions from the press about whether he will continue in office, despite repeated endorsements from the president. Some Democrats periodically call on him to resign for what they say was botched war planning.

Yesterday, a reporter quoted a column from New York Times pundit Maureen Dowd, who regularly expresses disdain for Mr. Bush. She wrote that Mr. Rumsfeld no longer carries the clout he once did.

“If you believe everything you read in Maureen Dowd, you better get a life,” Mr. Rumsfeld responded.

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