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US Iraq Commanders Plan Troop Drawdown Next April

A senior U.S. commander in Iraq says he believes there will be a drawdown of U.S. troops starting next April, as long as the security situation continues to improve. Meanwhile, the officer says, coalition and Iraqi forces are focused on eliminating pockets of Sunni insurgent activity in the countryside, having already made it difficult for them to operate in the cities. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Speaking via satellite from Baghdad, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno said forces sent to Iraq as part of the surge will end their tours of duty starting in April, and the current plan is not to replace them.

"The decision is, if we decide to backfill those units," he explained. "Right now, our plan is not to backfill those units. But General Petraeus, as we continue to make assessments, will make that decision."

About one of the additional combat brigades will reach the end of its tour each month, which, along with support troops, would bring the U.S. troop total in Iraq down from the current level of 162,000 to about 132,000 by next August.

"The surge, we know, as it is today, goes through April of '08," he said. "We believe at some time around that time we will begin to reduce our forces down to pre-surge levels. And we are building our plans accordingly."

That will likely not be a fast enough withdrawal to satisfy critics of the war in the U.S. Congress, and among candidates running for president. But General Odierno says it is important to take a "deliberate" approach to any drawdown to ensure Iraqi forces can maintain order. And he stressed that the drawdown plan will not be final at least until later this year.

Meanwhile, General Odierno says the focus of coalition and Iraqi operations is a new effort to make a series of quick strikes against what he called "sanctuaries and staging areas" used by al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgent forces in rural areas around the country.

"We have been able to liberate the major population centers, provide more security," the general said. "And what we will do is conduct quick operational strikes all around the country to go after these remaining small pockets that are still remaining out there of al-Qaida, and also Shia extremists."

General Odierno says over time the coalition will be turning more toward fighting Shi'ite extremist groups, but for now al-Qaida in Iraq remains the main threat, and the main target of his forces.

"We also believe we've had some effect on them, and if we can we want to finish them off," he said. "And so we're not going to let them up, we want to stay after them. We want to make life as tough as possible here for them."

General Odierno says it is already difficult for the insurgents to operate in Iraq's cities, and he says that is one reason for the devastating attacks in two remote northern villages this week. Nationwide, he reports the overall number of attacks is down to the level of this time last year, attacks on civilians are at a six-month low and sectarian murders in Baghdad are down more than 50 percent since January.

But he acknowledges there is much more to do to solidify the gains, and he expressed concern that insurgents might try to increase their attacks during the coming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts in mid-September.