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Foreign Minister: Iraq Can Handle US Troop Reduction

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, says his country can handle any cuts in the U.S. troop presence there because Iraqi forces are getting stronger. The minister's comments came after a top U.S. general said a reduction of the U.S. military presence in Iraq could begin early next year.

Mr. Zebari, speaking to reporters after meeting with officials of the NATO alliance, said a cutback of the 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq is feasible in the first part of 2006.

"The more we build our forces, our troops, and assume more responsibility, the less role the multinationals will have in Iraq,” he said. “If there would be some withdrawal, let's say in early 2006, I think it would be understandable because, by then also, the capacity of our military forces would be greater and better equipped, better trained. And, already on the ground, really, there are many responsibilities that are being transferred gradually to Iraqi units from the multinational forces."

The commander of U.S. military forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General John Vines, said earlier Tuesday that the U.S. military presence there could be reduced in early 2006 after a national election for a new Iraqi government in December.

Mr. Zebari also says he hopes the trial of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein can begin this year. But he says he cannot give a specific date.

"I can only say that the sooner he's brought to justice, the better. This will have an impact on the security situation, positively," he added.

Mr. Zebari is one of several Iraqi ministers attending Wednesday's Brussels conference, whose purpose is to give the six-week-old Iraqi government a chance to present its plans for political, economic and judicial reform to the international community.

Representatives of 80 countries and international institutions are attending the gathering, which is being co-hosted by the European Union and the United States. Among those present are United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Mr. Zebari outlined what he expects from the conference.

"Tomorrow, we are going to lay out our vision, our priorities, our needs to all the participants in the political, economic, justice, rule of law and security areas," he said. "And we hope that the conference will come out with a strong message of political support to the new elected Iraqi government, that there will be some follow-up, some tangible results on the pledges of donor countries, of other pledges for training, for increased support, for the security and justice institutions of our country."

U.S. and EU diplomats say they also hope that Iraq can patch up relations with some of its neighbors, like Iran and Syria, whose foreign ministers are expected to attend the conference. The diplomats say their countries will urge the new government to give minority Sunni Arabs a say in the drafting of a constitution and will encourage several of Iraq's creditors to follow the example of the mainly Western Paris Club in slashing Iraqi debt.