- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 17, 2005

Iraq’s nearly violence-free elections and the improved performance of its security forces sets the stage for the top U.S. commander there to soon recommend reducing American troop levels to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Army Gen. George Casey, the top commander, yesterday remained guarded about withdrawing troops, although he said this past summer that “substantial” troop drawdowns may occur.

But defense sources say the so-called base force that was increased to around 150,000 to provide extra security for Thursday’s parliamentary election could drop to below 100,000. The public plan already calls for shrinking levels to 138,000 and administration officials have signaled thousands more troops will come home in 2006.

“I’m not going to talk about the specifics of the reduction,” Gen. Casey told reporters at the Pentagon. “But we continually assess the security situation in terms of the capacity of the insurgency, the capacity of the Iraqi security forces all across the country.”

U.S. commanders say fewer foreign fighters are carrying out the war’s suicide bombing attacks. The decrease is credited to better patrols along the Syrian border and village-by-village sweeps up and down the Euphrates River. Gen. Casey said suicide bombings went from 60 in June to 26 in November.

Gen. Casey repeatedly has indicated his troop-level needs will be determined by two yardsticks — the expected success of this week’s elections, plus the fielding of more than 210,000 Iraqi Security Forces troops.

In that regard, the general said much of Iraq’s army should be able to “take the lead” by the end of 2006. This means its battalions should be able to plan and execute counterinsurgency missions. But they will still require embedded American advisers, and logistics and intelligence support.

Gen. Casey said “we’re going to start seeing” local police officers “take charge of maintaining internal security across Iraq.”

He also indicated American forces will be in Iraq for some time beyond 2006. Asked whether all Iraqi Security Forces can take the lead in 2007, he said, “It will depend on the ministerial capacity that we can build here over the next few years with the new ministers.”

New ministers are expected to be appointed once the permanently elected parliament convenes and chooses a prime minister.

The parliament will meet amid a complex political landscape that reaches into various insurgent factions. Sunni Muslim leaders supportive of attacks on American troops and loyal to deposed dictator Saddam Hussein have nonetheless negotiated with coalition officials and urged Sunnis to vote in Thursday’s balloting. These Sunnis hope to gain sufficient seats in parliament to influence the naming of a prime minister among majority Shi’ites.

Sunnis also hope to win ministerial posts and to gain changes in the Iraq constitution approved by voters Oct. 15.

The political complexities even reached into Iraq’s most restive city — Ramadi. Gen. Casey said al Qaeda in Iraq, the terror network led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, tried to disrupt election preparations in that city.

“Other insurgent groups came together and frustrated the al Qaeda in Iraq attempt to halt those elections,” he said. “So we’re seeing the political process, and particularly these elections, causing tensions within the insurgents.”

He added, “I think you know that none of these insurgencies have common ends. The only thing they agree on is that they want us out. So there are exploitable fissures between the different elements of the insurgency.”

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