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Iraq Withdrawal Possible Next Year if Conditions Right

There have been reports in recent days of plans for a significant reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq early next year. The reports come amid increasing calls from some members of the U.S. congress for such a withdrawal. But U.S. defense officials continue to say the final decision on troop levels will be based on the conditions when the time comes.

Media reports say the top U.S. general in Iraq has developed a plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 100,000. Currently, there are about 160,000 U.S. troops in the country, an increase from the usual number of 138,000 because of last month's constitutional referendum and next month's elections.

A Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Barry Venable, says he is not aware of any specific plan for a reduction to 100,000. And he repeated the position stated by senior U.S. officials many times, that any troop withdrawals from Iraq will be based on the strength of the insurgency and the ability of Iraq's new government, army and police forces to provide security for the country.

But in an interview, Lieutenant Colonel Venable also noted that a key announcement of future troop deployments for Iraq, made earlier this month, involved fewer than half the number of troops that have normally been deployed in the country in recent months. Lieutenant Colonel Venable says more units will likely be added to the deployment plan, but he says that in the past officials have designated the full complement of troops for future deployment at the beginning of the process. He says U.S. commanders feel that as Iraqi security forces grow in size and capability, they can wait, at least for a while, to see how many U.S. troops will be needed.

In addition, Lieutenant Colonel Venable notes that many more Iraqi units are taking a larger role in fighting the insurgency. Specifically, he reports that compared to just five months ago, more than three times as many Iraqi army units are capable of taking the lead in combat operations, a total of more than 20,000 troops. They still need U.S. support, but the spokesman says as this trend continues it will free up foreign troops for other operations in Iraq, or possibly to be sent home. Indeed, he notes that Iraqi forces have already taken primary responsibility for security in part of Baghdad, all of one province and more than a thousand square kilometers of territory scattered around other parts of the country.

Lieutenant Colonel Venable says there is no firm withdrawal plan, but he acknowledges that senior commanders can sense the opportunity for the possible beginning of a reduction in U.S. and other foreign troop strength in Iraq next year.