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US Commander in Iraq Sees Troop Cuts Later This Year

The top U.S. commander in Iraq says another drawdown of U.S. troops is likely later this year because of improved security. General David Petraeus' comments to a congressional panel Thursday came as the Senate approved more money for the military missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

General David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that further troop cuts in Iraq appeared likely after the withdrawal of the last of five surge brigades in July and a 45-day period of consolidation and assessment.

"My sense is that I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for some further reductions," he said.

Petreaus did not say how large a troop reduction would be possible.

He said security has continued to improve, with "security incidents" last week falling to the lowest point in more than four years. He credited military operations against Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias in the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City for the improved situation.

But Petreaus said the U.S. goal of handing over all 18 provinces to Iraqi security forces by the end of the year was not likely, in part because of violent conditions around Mosul in northern Iraq.

"Frankly, the developments of the last month and a half are causing us to look perhaps earlier to some provinces while others will be undoubtedly in the 2009 timeframe," he said.

Petraeus also said provincial elections, initially set for October, are likely to be delayed one month.

Petraeus has been nominated by President Bush to become the head of the U.S. Central Command, responsible for a region that includes the Middle East, Central Asia and East Africa.

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, Petraeus' former deputy in Iraq, has been nominated to replace him as the top military officer in Iraq.

Senate confirmation for both candidates appears certain. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, is chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

"If confirmed, these two officers will bring an unprecedented continuity of senior military leadership to a military operation," he said.

Among those questioning Petraeus and Odierno was Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who expressed concern about the administration efforts to crackdown on al-Qaida years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Six and a half years after 9/11, it is deeply troubling that we have not captured or killed or essentially decapitated the capacity of al-Qaida," she said.

As the hearing concluded, the Senate voted 70 to 26 for a $165 billion package to continue funding the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill also contains money for veterans' education and unemployment benefits.

Senator Clinton voted against the war funding, but in favor of the provision for veteran's benefits.

Clinton's rival for the Democratic Party's nomination for president, Senator Barack Obama, also voted for the veteran's benefits, but did not cast a vote for the war funding.

The likely Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, was campaigning in California.

The House has yet to act on the bill, which President Bush has vowed to veto if it contains the domestic spending. Last week the House voted to reject a war spending measure.