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China View February 04, 2005

Big cuts in US forces in Iraq unlikely until 2006

By Tan Xinmu

WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (Xinhuanet) -- The election in Iraq on Sunday has given new momentum to a debate in Washington over when the roughly 150,000 US troops should be pulled out of the country. How the Bush administration handles this issue will shed light on its true intention in Iraq.

Since the United States launched the Iraq war in March 2003, the number of American troops in Iraq has steadily increased, contradicting reports that the Pentagon was considering a scaling-down of forces. The number of US soldiers reached the highest level in December.

The Pentagon said the buildup was necessary to combat a growing insurgency in Iraq and to provide security for the Jan. 30 election. The end of the election, therefore, deprived Washington of a key rationale for keeping a large military presence in Iraq.

In the past few days, there have been mounting calls from Democrats for the Bush administration to announce a withdrawal timetable, refueling a debate that had been going on since the endof major combat operations in Iraq in May 2003.

"We need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic Party's senior leader,declared that America's goal should be to complete the military withdrawal as early as possible in 2006. He said a withdrawal would give hope to Iraqis that the occupation is coming to an end.

"The US military presence has become part of the problem, not part of the solution," he concluded.

But the Bush administration has been ambiguous over when it sees a US withdrawal. Bush mentioned the term "withdrawal" severaltimes in the past few days, but in the meantime stressed that it could not occur until the troops have accomplished their mission in Iraq.

He said US forces would leave Iraq if asked by a newly elected government, but again said he did not expect the new leaders to make such a request before Iraqi forces are ready to fight on their own.

During his State of the Union address on Wednesday, Bush said it would be a mistake to set "an artificial timetable" for a US withdrawal from Iraq, "because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out."

Administration officials, military generals and analysts agree that any US withdrawal will largely depend on the ability of US-trained Iraqi police and security forces to assume control in Iraq.

General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff,told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday that about136,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped so far. But only "about 40,000 can go anywhere in the country and take on any threat."

The New York Times reported Tuesday that a classified assessment document prepared for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeldprojected that Iraqi forces will not be capable of taking the leadin securing Baghdad until January 2006 at the earliest.

Another factor that will influence the withdrawal decision is how the new transitional government will balance the need for a USprotection and domestic calls to end the occupation.

Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim Iraqi president, and Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, have said it would be "complete nonsense to ask the troops to leave in this chaos and this vacuum of power."

But analysts say Iraqis have been increasingly eager to restoresovereignty. Not only many Sunni Arabs were angry at foreign forces, many Shiites, America's major allies in Iraq, also celebrated the election as a further step toward reclaiming their country.

"Thus, developing a withdrawal schedule would not run counter to the message of the elections but would build on that positive message," two analysts at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Michael O'Hanlon and James Steinberg, wrote on the Washington Post Wednesday.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said Thursday that the Pentagon plans to maintain 135,000 troops in Iraq through this year, with some 15,000 troops whose deployment had already been extended for the election expected to go home shortly.

It was widely believed that there would be no significant decrease in the American presence in Iraq through early 2006. A gradual reduction is expected to follow.

But it is highly unlikely that Washington will pull all its troops out of Iraq after the Iraqis are ready to defend themselves.

Some observers noted that the United States is seeking access to military bases in Iraq and trying to inject American influence into the heart of the unsettled region.

John Pike, director of the defense research group GlobalSecurity.org, has located 12 so-called "enduring bases" the US military is building in Iraq. Enditem

Copyright 2005, Xinhua News Agency