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US military in Iraq denies troop withdrawal plan

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, Mah 5 (Reuters) Media reports that America and Britain plan to pull all their troops out of Iraq by the spring of 2007 are ''completely false,'' the US military in Iraq said today, reiterating there is no timetable for withdrawal.

Two British newspapers reported in their today editions that the pull-out plan followed an acceptance by the two governments that the presence of foreign troops in Iraq was now a large obstacle to securing peace.

But a spokesman for the US military in Iraq reiterated previous statements by US and Iraqi officials that foreign troops will be gradually withdrawn from the Arab country once Iraqi security forces are capable of guaranteeing security.

''This news report on a withdrawal of forces within a set timeframe is completely false,'' Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said of the stories in Britain's Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Mirror, which quoted unnamed senior defence ministry sources.

''As we've said over and over again, any withdrawal will be linked to the ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain domestic order on behalf of a representative Iraqi government that respects the rights of all its citizens. This is an ongoing assessment and not linked to any timeframe,'' he said.

There are currently about 135,000 US soldiers and Marines and about 8,500 British troops in Iraq. The full US-led coalition numbers around 160,000. Italy, with the fourth largest contingent in Iraq, has said it plans to pull out this year.

US and British troops have trained 230,000 Iraqis to take on roles in the police force and a slowly expanding Iraqi army, but both are currently incapable of securing the country on their own.

The US military withdrew around 15,000 troops after Iraq held successful elections in December for its first full-term parliament since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Tensions in Iraq have soared over the past two weeks as fighting between the country's main Muslim sects has intensified following the February 22 bombing of Shi'ite shrine.

Militants are waging a two-year-old insurgency against the US-backed Iraqi Government, its security forces and foreign troops.

The recent sectarian violence has provoked fears that the country is on the brink of civil war, a scenario that could greatly complicate the role of foreign troops.

But the Sunday Telegraph, quoting a defence official, said that if civil war were to break out, it would likely cause the withdrawal plan to be put off.

REUTERS PG RN1404

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