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US General: Gradual Withdrawal of Some US Forces North of Baghdad Could Begin Next Year


A senior U.S. general in Iraq says he might be able to recommend a gradual withdrawal of some coalition forces from his area north of Baghdad, starting in January. But the general says any withdrawal sooner or more quickly would be a mistake. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Speaking via satellite from a base near Tikrit, Major General Benjamin Mixon told reporters here that a slow and carefully planned reduction of U.S. forces in his area could be possible next year.

"We could have a reduction of force that could begin in January of 2008, take about 12 to 18 months to where we could have a minimum force here," he said.

General Mixon, who said in May he did not have enough forces to establish security in Diyala, Niniweh and Salah al-Din Provinces, says the surge ordered by President Bush has given him enough forces, and he is making what he called "definitive progress."

But he said is troubled by the debate in Washington, in which some members of Congress are calling for a withdrawal sooner and more quickly than he believes would be wise.

"It needs to be well thought out, and it can not be a strategy based on, 'well, we need to leave,' he said. "That's not a strategy, that's a withdrawal."

On Friday, after the general spoke, two of the most prominent senators from President Bush's Republican Party on foreign and defense issues co-sponsored a measure calling on the president to begin withdrawing or redeploying U.S. forces in Iraq by the end of this year. The amendment by Senators John Warner and Richard Lugar also says at that time U.S. forces should stop "policing ... civil strife" and should only fight terrorists, protect Iraq's borders and U.S. diplomats, and train Iraqi security forces.

The senators' move is the latest and most serious defection by members of the president's party.

But asked late Friday about General Mixon's more modest withdrawal idea, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had not heard about it, and indicated it is too early to predict what the future size and mission of U.S. forces in Iraq might be.

"That will depend on at least two broad considerations," he said. "One is the actual situation on the ground, not only in September but as we go forward. But second, it will also depend, I think, on whether we have a long-term security agreement with the Iraqis."

Friday's comments came the day after the Bush administration issued a preliminary report on progress toward establishing security, stability and reconciliation in Iraq. The administration gave itself and the Iraqi government a satisfactory grade on eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory on eight others and a mixed review on two more.

President Bush called on Congress and the public to wait until the next report in September before making judgments about the new strategy he announced in January. But public opinion polls and moves in the Congress indicate there is little sentiment to do that. Still, experts say there is not much the Congress can do to force a change in policy during the next couple of months, and the real debate about the future U.S. role in Iraq will likely come in September.

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