- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2006

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq yesterday predicted a gradual drop in American troops deployed there through next year, while Iraq’s new national security adviser said all multinational forces could be out of his country by 2008.

“I think, as long as the Iraqi security forces continue to progress and as long as this national unity government continues to operate that way and move the country forward, I think we’re going to be able to see continued gradual reductions of coalition forces over the coming months and into next year,” Gen. George Casey told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak Rubaie went further, giving both a number and a prediction of how soon most U.S. troops will have left his country.

“By the end of the year, of this year, I believe that the number of the multinational forces will be probably less than 100,000 in this country,” Mr. Rubaie told CNN’s “Late Edition.”

“And by the end of next year, most of the multinational forces will have gone home,” Mr. Rubaie said. “And by the middle of 2008, we will not see a lot of visibility, neither in the cities or in the towns, of the multinational forces. So the overwhelming majority of the multinational forces will leave, probably before the middle of 2008.”

Those U.S.-led forces yesterday said they had finished doing an autopsy on the body of slain terror leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, killed in a targeted U.S. air strike Wednesday, but U.S. officials declined to release the results immediately.

Gen. Casey said he had not seen the report. He and other officials also said they expect Zarqawi’s terror group, al Qaeda in Iraq, to step up the bloodshed as threatened.

An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman yesterday welcomed the news of Zarqawi’s death. But, Hamid Reza Asefi said, “This doesn’t mean that we cooperated with the U.S. in getting him.”

Gen. Casey was quick to reiterate President Bush’s insistence that U.S. troops will leave Iraq when commanders there say the time is right, not on a predetermined deadline determined by politics.

“I constantly evaluate the situation,” Gen. Casey said on “Fox News Sunday.” “And if I think I need more, I’ll ask for more. If I think I need less, I’ll tell the president I need less.”

Gen. Casey declined to share what advice regarding troops he will give Mr. Bush during two days of meetings on the war on terror that the president called for today and tomorrow.

“There should be no deadlines on the time we bring troops home,” former Iraq Administrator L. Paul Bremer told ABC’s “This Week” yesterday. “I think that’s a mistake. That only encourages the terrorists to continue their fighting.”

Gen. Casey told CBS that a drawdown of U.S. forces actually began last year with the redeployment of troops brought in to provide additional security for December’s Iraqi elections.

“We started drawing down American forces last December,” Gen. Casey said. “I’ve gone from about 160,000 U.S. forces here, at around the time of the election, down to under 130,000 now.”

Mr. Rubaie also echoed the longstanding comments of Mr. Bush, who has said that as more Iraqi troops step up, U.S. troops will begin to stand down.

“We have what we call a condition-based agreement with the coalition forces,” Mr. Rubaie said. “Basically, the more our Iraqi security forces — our police, our army — the more they grow in number, in training, and are ready and able to perform and to protect our people, then the less we need of the multinational forces.”

Although the comments by Gen. Casey and Mr. Rubaie were more optimistic than other recent assessments of progress in Iraq, some Democrats in Congress have called for a more rapid or immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, yesterday joined such calls to pull out troops.

“Start moving them out of Iraq, putting some in Kuwait and Jordan,” Mrs. Harman, generally considered one of the more hawkish members of her party, said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“While we’re part of the political solution, we’re also part of the military problem,” she said. “And having us continue to stay there I don’t think will achieve our objectives.”

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, was among the first lawmakers to call for immediate redeployment of U.S. troops to areas outside Iraq. Mr. Murtha, a Marine veteran, reportedly is interested in a leadership post if his party wins control of the House in November.

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