- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers yesterday downplayed the prospect of deep cuts next year in U.S. troop levels in Iraq, saying there is “a possibility” for some reduction if political and military progress continues.

Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, spoke last month about a substantial drawdown from the current 138,000 American forces in the spring of 2006. Some U.S. officials have said privately that “substantial” could translate into a 40,000-troop reduction.

But Gen. Myers, back at the Pentagon after a 10-day tour of U.S. bases worldwide, dampened such speculation.

“If the political process continues, then there’s a possibility we might be able to reduce forces,” the Air Force general said at a Pentagon press conference. “But sharp reductions — I mean, nobody — no senior commander has talked about sharp reductions. And we’ll just have to see what plays out.”

He said any reductions will be dependent on two key factors: successful national elections in January and the ability of Iraq Security Forces (ISF) to take a larger role in fighting terrorists and Iraqi insurgents.

Gen. Myers’ remarks appeared aimed at ending speculation about large numbers of troops coming home next year, regardless of how the Iraq elections go.

Gen. Casey told reporters in July that a “fairly substantial” reduction could be achieved in 2006. A month earlier, his top tactical commander, Army Lt. Gen. John Vines, said five to six brigades, or 20,000 soldiers, could leave Iraq.

Asked about such comments, Gen. Myers said: “I’m just telling you what I know. What I know is that we’ll plan for several contingencies and it will be event driven.”

Although he stressed he was not criticizing the press, Gen. Myers said, “Despite what we may read and hear back here in Washington, our troops see firsthand the progress we are making. And our troops know we are winning.”

Some Pentagon officials complain that press coverage of Iraq is focused on daily casualty counts and on narration of insurgent attacks. Missed, they contend, is the broader picture of a new democracy emerging in the heart of the Middle East as soldiers and Marines rebuild communities.

“… It could be fuller, but it’s a difficult environment to report on as well,” Gen. Myers said.

As an example of progress, he said about one-third of Baghdad in Shi’ite neighborhoods has been turned over to ISF. “There has not been a violent incident in the Shi’a neighborhoods now for months since the Iraqis have taken over,” he said.

Gen. Myers, who took the oath of office shortly after the September 11 attacks and completes a four-year term Oct. 1, also talked about the importance of Iraq in the global war against Islamic terrorists. None is more deadly than Abu Musab Zarqawi, who commands networks of foreign suicide bombers in Iraq.

“The stakes are huge,” the general said. “If the Zarqawis of the world, who is part of al Qaeda — the al Qaedas were allowed to be successful in Iraq … and that would be the start of the caliphate that they envision, the stakes would be huge for the region. And you talk about instability. It would be instant instability in that region.”

Earlier in the day, Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, who commands Task Force Liberty in north-central Iraq, told reporters that he faces an enemy whose attacks “ebb and flow.” He is not seeing as many vehicle-borne suicide bombers in recent months. But, “We expect that the enemies will increase their attacks, particularly as we run up to the [Oct. 15] referendum,” he said. “They seem to, you know, re-arm themselves and then re-attack.”

He said he sees fewer Zarqawi fighters in his district. “They’re intrinsic,” he said. “They’re not easily identifiable.”

Gen. Taluto said he sees no sign of a coming civil war, at least in his zone, which includes Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s power base. “We’re not seeing indicators of sectarian violence that would lead us to think that there’s going to be any large-scale breakout,” he said.

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