- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 30, 2009

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT | A combat brigade of 5,000 American troops may be brought home early from Iraq if an emerging trend of reduced violence holds, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday.

Mr. Gates’ acknowledgment that he is considering speeding the withdrawal of a full combat unit by the end of this year amounts to the first hint that the Obama administration might rethink its decision to keep a large residual force in Iraq and pull them out slowly.

“I think there’s at least some chance of a modest acceleration” in troop withdrawal this year, Mr. Gates told reporters on his plane en route to Washington from Baghdad. His comments came after discussions with his top commanders in the war.

U.S. officials had worried that last month’s formal transfer of control of Iraqi cities to Iraqi security forces might erode gains already made, but Mr. Gates said that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. general in Iraq, told him the security situation is better than expected.

Violence directed at Iraqi civilian targets spiked after leveling off in recent months, but attacks on American soldiers have dropped off sharply since a withdrawal from Iraqi cities was completed in mid-June.

An Associated Press tally showed seven U.S. troop deaths this month, the lowest monthly total since the Iraq war started in 2003.

The United States has about 130,000 forces in Iraq, with current plans calling for most combat forces - or more than 100,000 troops - to remain in the country until after Iraqi national elections in January.

It was largely because of Gen. Odierno’s concerns that the coming Iraqi election would trigger a rebound in violence that President Obama decided on a slow withdrawal.

Though Mr. Obama announced in February that he would end the American combat role in Iraq, officials said at the time that the president had accepted a recommendation by U.S. officials and commanders in Baghdad to maintain substantial military forces there until after the January Iraqi election to help guarantee a safe ballot. The decision disappointed many anti-war Democrats.

Under the initial plan, the United States would draw down from 14 brigades to 12 this year. The withdrawal pace would have quickened after the January election, leaving about 50,000 troops in Iraq by September 2010.

Mr. Gates stressed Wednesday that the idea of speeding up that pace and bringing a third brigade back by the end of this year is preliminary, tied to continued good news in Iraq.

“It depends on circumstances; it may or may not happen,” he cautioned.

The Iraqi government welcomed the news and said government security forces were working toward the same goal, but need more arms as well as training.

“This also must coincide with the speedier training and arming of the Iraqi security forces,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. “We are ready to take over. The faster the U.S. troops withdraw, the faster we can fill in the gaps.”

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