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Top US Military Officer: Iraq Withdrawal Pause to Depend on Ground Conditions


The top U.S. military officer says it is possible the United States could pause its withdrawal from Iraq later this year, if commanders there believe it is necessary. But Admiral Mike Mullen says he does not see the need right now. The admiral spoke to reporters at the Pentagon Friday amid a continuing controversy over the pace of the U.S. troop drawdown. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

The coalition commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has said he might want to pause the withdrawals after the final surge troops leave in July. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he hopes the withdrawals will be able to continue in order to get the U.S. troop level in Iraq down to about 100,000 by the end of the year.

On Friday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, tried to reconcile the two positions.

"Secretary Gates hasn't changed his position," he said. "He's recently restated that that hope is out there. But the hope is not going to drive the solution set. All of us, including Secretary Gates, are very focused on making these recommendations based on conditions on the ground."

Admiral Mullen also noted the drawdown is in a pause right now, with about 5,000 U.S. troops having left Iraq in December, and the next group not scheduled to leave until April.

The admiral says he does not see anything happening in Iraq right now that would require another pause in July, and he says General Petraeus has not informed his superiors that he is considering asking for a pause. Admiral Mullen says it is too soon to know what the conditions will be when the surge ends in July, but he believes General Petraeus will be able to make a good assessment when he testifies before Congress in April.

"I think April is close enough, I mean, we're within reasonable time and distance to July in order to certainly make an assessment," he said. "And if it's an assessment that in fact warrants moving it to the right, then so be it."

In military terminology, 'moving it to the right' means delaying something, in this case, the further drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Also on Friday, the chief of staff for coalition ground forces in Iraq gave his assessment of the situation. Just two weeks before the end of a 15-month tour of duty, Brigadier General Joseph Anderson said the question of how fast the United States can reduce its troop presence will be answered in large part by how ready Iraqi forces are to take their place.

"The key piece that's going to allow us to assess, that is going to be the ability of the Iraqi security forces as they expand now upwards of over half a million, 550,000, how they hold the ground, which allows us to focus on an overwatch capacity," he said. "I think that's going to be the difference."

General Anderson said another important factor will be progress by the Iraqi government toward defining the powers of the provinces and toward absorbing local citizen forces that have been an important element in the recent security improvements in Iraq.

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