Cuts may curb casualties
FALLUJAH, Iraq - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's rationale for starting to shrink the U.S. military force in Iraq -- even the setting of his announcement, in this former insurgent stronghold -- suggests U.S. officials foresee more cuts in coming months.
Those reductions, along with plans to shift some American troops to support roles such as training Iraqi security forces, raise the possibility that U.S. losses might decline as well.
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters after Rumsfeld announced the troops cuts Friday that he hopes to recommend more reductions as early as the spring -- assuming progress such as formation of an Iraqi government.
But he added, "I don't have a goal for the end of 2006."
Casey said that with Rumsfeld's announced canceling of the deployment to Iraq of two Army brigades -- one from the 1st Infantry Division in Kansas and the other from the 1st Armored Division now in Kuwait -- the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq will drop by about 7,000, to about 130,000 by March. This year's base level has been about 138,000.
"In this kind of war that we're fighting, more is not necessarily better," Casey said. "In fact, in Iraq, less coalition at this point in time is better. Less is better because it doesn't feed the notion of occupation" or further deepen the Iraqis' dependence on American firepower.
In remarks to U.S. troops here and to Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad, Rumsfeld made similar points. He said the U.S. "footprint" must not be so large or intrusive as to "antagonize a proud and patriotic people, or to discourage the Iraqi people from taking initiative to run their own country."
Those remarks echoed the argument by Rep. John Murtha, of Johnstown, a leading Democratic advocate of a quick U.S. pullout, who says the presence of American forces is helping fuel the insurgency.
Congressional Democrats praised the announcement and urged President Bush to go even further. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she hoped the reduction "will quickly be followed by others that will result in all U.S. combat forces being redeployed from Iraq next year."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he still wanted Bush to "level with the American people" about the conditions he wants before more troops can be brought home.
Besides the force reduction, American officials have begun talking about shifting the roles of some U.S. combat troops to more behind-the-scenes tasks like advising Iraqi units.
"The coalition will continue to transfer responsibility for security operations to the Iraqi security force and place more emphasis on supporting Iraqi forces through training, support activities and counter-terrorist operations," Rumsfeld said in a speech to several hundred soldiers, sailors and Marines in a hall decorated with trappings of Christmas.
At the Pentagon on Thursday, Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "you're going to read increasingly about Iraqi units" doing combat tasks as some American fighting units are replaced by technical support teams.
Some officials believe that could reduce U.S. casualties, which have surpassed 2,100 dead.
"We're going to see significant progress on the part of the Iraqis to fend for themselves and we will be able to take our troops out of the line of fire," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "Whether they will be able to come home, though, is another story."
Others caution that it will take time for the U.S. to cede its combat role to the Iraqis.
"I think we should be braced for it to be quite slow," said Brookings Institution foreign policy analyst Michael E. O'Hanlon, "and 2006 will still be a bloody year in Iraq."
The choice of Fallujah as the setting for Rumsfeld's announcement underscored the progress made since this city west of Baghdad was the insurgent's major stronghold. U.S. forces invaded it in November 2004 at the cost of dozens of American lives.
Besides mounting domestic political pressure to wind down the war and the gradual improvement of Iraqi forces, U.S. officials say they want to give the emerging Iraqi government an opportunity to control its own future -- a future that inevitably must not include U.S. forces.
"Ultimately, it will be the continued wise choices by the Iraqi people that will end the violence in Iraq over time," Rumsfeld said.
There were conflicting accounts by officials of how big the initial troop cut will be. Rumsfeld mentioned no specific number, saying only that the force would be cut by two brigades. His aides said privately that the number likely would be 5,000 or less, but Casey put it at 7,000.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, at a news conference with Rumsfeld on Friday, said his government and the American military commanders had agreed the cut would be 7,500.
An army brigade normally totals about 3,500 soldiers.
Jaafari said the reductions are a clear sign that Iraq is getting back on its feet.
"This step sends a clear message to those terrorists who are trying to destabilize Iraq and spread fear under different names or claims," Jaafari said in an English-language statement issued by his office.
This year's U.S. base force of 138,000 troops was bulked up to about 160,000 in anticipation of intensified violence in advance of the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and the Dec. 15 election. Those extra troops 20,000 will be leaving in January, officials have said.