Defense Sec hints at deeper cuts in US troop strength in Iraq

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Washington, Sep 15 (UNI) US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has hinted at the possibility of a drastic reduction in the US troop strength in Iraq, a level higher than the one that President Bush had announced in his address to the nation on Thursday.

Talking to newsmen here yesterday, Mr Gates said, the US troop levels in Iraq could be cut to about 100,000 by the end of next year.

Presently, there are about 169,000 American troops in Iraq.

Mr Gates said conditions in Iraq could improve enough to allow much deeper cuts in troops than are currently scheduled for 2008.

He hoped that US troops can be drawn down to about 10 combat brigades and support units - or about 100,000 troops -- by the end of next year. Bush had approved a plan, on the recommendation of US commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus to reduce troop levels from the current 20 combat brigades to 15 brigades by July.

Secretary Gates was hopeful the reductions can continue at about the same pace during the last half of 2008.

He, however, said the stakes in Iraq are too high to withdraw troops any faster than President Bush has approved so far.

''The political debate and the debate among historians about this war will go on for a long time. However, the consequences of American failure in Iraq at this point would, I believe, be disastrous not just for Iraq, but for the region, for the United States and for the world. No discussion of where and how we go from here can avoid this stark reality," he said.

UNI

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