- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Top U.S. commanders in Iraq will not recommend the next stage of U.S. troop withdrawals before the Iraqis form a new unity government, say senior defense officials.

The officials also said that a 700-soldier reinforcement unit, brought into Iraq from Kuwait for the annual Shi’ite pilgrimage, will remain until the unity government is in place, or at least announced.

“I don’t think you’ll see a recommendation before then,” said one official, who asked not to be named.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Gen. George Casey, his top commander in Iraq, have spoken publicly of anticipating more reductions this year below the current 132,000 troops. U.S. strength in Iraq peaked at 160,000 military personnel during the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

But two sources said those expected reductions will not be recommended before a unity government is formed and that Gen. Casey has yet to make a formal proposal to the defense secretary, although the two talk frequently via secure teleconferences.

“Right now, he is not in a position to make that assessment,” the official said. This official declined to discuss specific troop scenarios, but other defense sources have mentioned 100,000 as the level they would like to see announced before year’s end.

Forming a new government and maturing the 240,000-strong Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are the principal factors driving talks of troop reduction. Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds resumed negotiations yesterday, but no side is predicting when a unity government will be agreed upon. They face a May deadline, which could be extended.

In that vein, the recent Shi’ite Arbaeen pilgrimage of more than 1 million to holy sites in Karbala and Najaf is being cited by the Pentagon as an example of the ISF’s becoming more proficient.

In 2004, insurgents killed more than 120 Iraqis during the trek. Last year, 33 were killed. This year, 12 Iraqis were killed in a religious exercise long banned by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim who regularly cracked down on Shi’ite towns throughout the south.

“It’s estimated that more than a million Shia traveled across the country, across Iraq, for the pilgrimage,” Mr. Rumsfeld said Tuesday. “Many slept in tents along the road. Many wore black robes and held banners. Some walked with their children.

“They were thought to be easy and very visible targets for terrorists. … Iraqi security forces — benefiting from their increased numbers … and their additional training and experience — performed well and took the lead in protecting their fellow Iraqis.”

Pentagon officials also think the ISF performed well controlling violence in the aftermath of the Feb. 22 mosque bombing in Samarra. They said, however, that some units, especially the national police, have been infiltrated by militias or insurgents who carry out revenge attacks and put out false reports of U.S. atrocities.

Gen. Casey said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” earlier this month that he is doing monthly assessments of the ISF, but has made no decision on when to make the “fairly substantial” reductions that he has predicted.