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General Says US Forces in Iraq Could Begin Withdrawal Next Year

The commanding general of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq says there could be a significant reduction in the number of U.S. troops in the country by this time next year, if the political process remains on track. The comments came Wednesday during a visit to Baghdad by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who urged the committee writing Iraq's constitution not to miss the August 15 deadline to finish their work. Meanwhile, Iraq's transitional prime minister called on the United States to speed up the training of Iraq's new military forces and begin to coordinate the handover of security control.

The issues of Iraq's political future, the training of its security forces and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces are all coming together as the constitutional deadline approaches. Officials of the committee writing the constitution say they will announce on Monday whether to invoke the six-month extension Iraq's interim constitution provides. In Iraq on Wednesday, Secretary Rumsfeld urged them not to do that, saying, "We don't want any delays. Now's the time to get on with it."

The process of writing the constitution has been hampered by factional rivalries, issues related to religion and women's rights, and the murder of two Sunni members of the committee, which resulted in the temporary withdrawal of the remaining Sunni members.

The completion of the constitution is crucial to keeping the timetable for a referendum to ratify it, scheduled for October, and elections to form a permanent government, expected in December. The commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, General George Casey, said Wednesday if the political timetable is met, it should be possible to have a significant withdrawal of U.S. forces next year, something both U.S. and Iraqi officials say they want.

"I do believe that if the political process continues to go positively, and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll be able to take some fairly substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer of next year," he said.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials have said the timing of any withdrawal of foreign forces depends on more than just Iraq's political process. They say the strength of the ongoing insurgency and the capability of Iraq's new military and police forces are also crucial factors.

On Wednesday, at a news conference in Baghdad with Secretary Rumsfeld, Iraq's transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari called for intensified training of the Iraqi forces. The United States has put an extensive training program in place, including the "partnering" of U.S. and Iraqi units. The number two U.S. military officer reported last week that two-thirds of the Iraqi army units are combat-ready, and half of the police force is operational. But he reported that even among those units only a few are able to operate without help from coalition forces.

Prime Minister Jaafari also called for the beginning of a process to coordinate the eventual handover of security control to the Iraqi forces. He said Iraq does "not want to be surprised" by a withdrawal.