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US military mulls whether Iraq troop cut possible

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, Mar 1 (Reuters) A spike in violence in Iraq that has heightened worries about civil war has the Pentagon discussing the wisdom of further cutting American forces there, defense officials said today.

Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, said Army Gen George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, planned to make a recommendation this spring to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush on future US troop levels.

''Spring starts this month. And clearly the commanders will be looking at that (future force levels) and whether or not they'll be recommending any force adjustments to the secretary and the president,'' Whitman said.

The United States has 133,000 troops in Iraq, the Pentagon said, down from about 160,000 in December when they were helping secure Iraq's parliamentary elections. The Pentagon has cut US combat brigades to 15 from 17.

Defense officials previously have said the Pentagon was looking at options for troop levels in Iraq in 2006 including dropping down to about 100,000 if security and political conditions permit, but with other options for smaller cuts or one at all.

A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, US military commanders believed the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces did ''a tremendous job'' containing a rash of sectarian violence triggered by last week's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

That bolsters confidence that the Iraqi forces are capable of handling the load in the event the Pentagon cuts US troop levels, the official said. US troops were poised as a rapid-reaction force in the event Iraqi forces became overwhelmed in the latest violence.

The official said there was concern over making troop cuts at a time when many experts were concerned Iraq was descending into a civil war.

''The glass half empty is: 'Oh my God, this is one crisis, what's the next one going to be? And is this the beginning of the meltdown?''' the official said, while noting that U.S.

commanders did not believe such a meltdown was imminent.

''There's the optics of: Is this the right time to be able to announce any decision that would send the message that we intend to draw down our forces in the near term?'' the official said.

REUTERS DH RAI0159

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