Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has unveiled a troop replacement plan for Iraq that should see the overall number of American soldiers in the country decrease next year, if security conditions permit.
Mr. Rumsfeld says about 85,000 U.S. combat troops have been alerted that they will be sent to Iraq next year, replacing soldiers who have been there for up to a year. In addition, the U.S. defense secretary says, some 43,000 Reserve and National Guard forces may be tapped for support duty.
There are presently about 130,000 American troops in Iraq. Under the rotation plan, Pentagon officials say the overall number should drop to around 105,000 next year, if security conditions permit.
Mr. Rumsfeld says the replacement plan underscores the Bush administration's goal of handing over more and more responsibility for security in Iraq to the ever-growing number of Iraqi security forces.
But speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld denies the administration's top priority is to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as possible.
"We intend to see this through," he said. "The president is solid as a rock on this, and the task is not to find a way to leave the country precipitously. Rather, the task is to see how, at what pace, we are able to see the Iraqi people take over responsibility for their essential services, take over responsibility for the governance of the country and take over responsibility for the security of the country. And, that should be done [at] as rapid a rate as is possible, and it should not be done at a rate so rapid, it is not possible."
Mr. Rumsfeld says details of the troop rotation plan were being disclosed as early as possible to give soldiers, especially those in the Reserve and National Guard, as much notice as possible.
He says the goal remains to limit duty tours in Iraq to 12 months at most.
In response to reporters' questions, Mr. Rumsfeld denied there was any need for an increased American military presence in Iraq.
He also dismissed suggestions that a newly-reported last-minute proposal for peace talks with Iraqi leaders could have averted this year's war.
"The regime of Saddam Hussein had ample - well beyond ample - opportunities to avoid war," said Donald Rumsfeld.
News reports say Iraqi officials tried to arrange last-minute talks with the United States to head off a war, apparently using a Lebanese-American businessman to send secret messages to the Pentagon. The businessman reportedly said top Iraqi officials wanted the Bush administration to know Iraq no longer had any weapons of mass destruction, and would let U.S. troops into the country to conduct a search, among other concessions.