The U.S. will carry out planned withdrawals of American troops in Iraq only from regions where Iraqi forces can maintain security against the insurgents, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff said Thursday.
Gen. Peter Pace said the current force of 160,000 would drop to below 138,000 by March, then U.S. commanders on the ground would work with the Iraqi government to determine the pace of future pullbacks in areas that have been secured by local security forces.
“The bottom line will be that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police will gain in competence, that they will be able to take on more and more of the territory, whether or not there are still insurgents in that area,” he said in an interview with a small group of reporters, including The Associated Press, aboard a military plane en route to the United Arab Emirates.
Amid congressional pressure and growing public opposition to the war, the Bush administration last week announced plans to reduce U.S. combat troops in Iraq to below the 138,000 level that prevailed most of this year.
The number of American forces in Iraq was raised to about 160,000 to provide extra security during the October referendum and December parliamentary elections, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said those extra troops would be leaving soon.
The exact size of the additional troops cuts has not been announced, but senior Pentagon officials have said the number of American troops in Iraq could drop to about 100,000 by next fall.
The decision where to cut troops “will be based on the Iraqi units in that area and the threat that exists in that area,” Pace said earlier at a news conference in Bahrain.
The key, he stressed, “is the Iraqis’ ability to control that area.”
Pace has said American units will steadily hand off more security duties in the coming months to Iraqi forces and stressed the U.S. military needs to be flexible, but his comments offered a detailed glimpse of the administration’s plans.
Pace’s tour of the region came two weeks after Dec. 15 Iraqi parliament elections, which the United States considered a key step toward stability that could allow a drawdown of troops.
But violence has not stopped in Iraq. On Thursday, gunmen killed 12 members of an extended Shiite Family south off Baghdad and a suicide bomber killed a policeman in the capital.
Complaints by Sunni Arab and secular Shiite groups of widespread fraud and intimidation during the vote also have threatened to spark a serious crisis that could set back hopes for a broad-based government that could have the legitimacy necessary to diminish the insurgency — a key part of any U.S. military exit strategy from Iraq.
Pace said efforts were under way to recruit Sunnis into the Iraqi security forces, “especially on the officers’ side.”
Pace, who was making his first official visit to the region since becoming the first Marine to be named chairman of the joint chiefs of staff three months ago, said the withdrawals of two brigades in the coming months would provide a test for the decision to pull out troops.
“We are going to have to watch how these drawdowns go to see if we have judged it properly,” he said.
Pace, who was traveling with his wife, Lynne, and a group of entertainers to offer holiday cheer to U.S. troops in the region, began his weeklong trip Wednesday in Qatar. He also planned stops in Iraq, Afghanistan and the East African nation of Djibouti.