Rumsfeld expects US troop levels in Iraq to drop
WASHINGTON, Apr 25 : Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he expected the United States will be able to continue to cut its troop levels in Iraq, while saying success in Iraq is critical to containing neighboring Iran.
Rumsfeld yesterday called the political developments in Iraq in recent days a ''thrilling accomplishment,'' but said it was reasonable to believe the insurgency will try to prevent the completion of the new permanent Iraqi government.
Shi'ite leader Jawad al-Maliki was asked in parliament on Saturday to form Iraq's first full-term government since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein in 2003, and has a month to form a cabinet sharing power among Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
The United States has 133,000 troops in Iraq, the Pentagon said, down from about 160,000 in place in December during parliamentary elections.
Sectarian violence flared in Iraq, already a volatile brew of ethnic and sectarian tensions, after February's bombing of a key Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, elevating concerns about the outbreak of a civil war.
Rumsfeld indicated the Pentagon intends to stick with plans to reduce the size of the US military presence, but did not give specific numbers or a timetable. He said any decisions would depend on security conditions on the ground.
''As we're able to pass over more responsibility (to US-trained Iraqi security forces), one would think that we would be able to continue reducing down our forces,'' Rumsfeld said in an interview with the Pentagon's television channel.
Army Gen George Casey, the top US commander in Iraq, last year forecast a ''fairly substantial'' reduction in US troops this spring and summer if Iraq's political process goes well and progress is made in developing Iraqi security forces.
Rumsfeld linked success in Iraq to containing Iran amid concern over its nuclear ambitions.
''It seems to me that we need to put Iraq and Afghanistan in that context so that those people in our country who are deeply concerned about Iran, which is understandable, recognize that success in Afghanistan and success in Iraq is critical to containing the extreme impulses that we see emanating from Iran,'' Rumsfeld said.
Opinion polls show US public support for the 3-year-old Iraq war eroding, which is contributing to a drop in President George W Bush's job approval ratings.
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