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Rumsfeld: Iraq on track for U.S. troop decrease

U.S. force levels in Iraq could be reduced if that country's security forces "continue to do the kind of job they're doing," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

U.S. force levels in Iraq could be reduced if that country's security forces "continue to do the kind of job they're doing," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday, in testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But Rumsfeld declined to say whether a significant reduction would be possible. "I wouldn't want to use your phrase of significant," he told Illinois Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, saying that would prompt a debate on the meaning of that word.

"If the Iraqi security forces continue to do the kind of job they're doing, then there's no doubt in my mind that we're going to be able to reduce some troops," Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Bush administration has said it would be able to withdraw U.S. forces as Iraq's own forces became capable of taking on the insurgency.

Rumsfeld appeared with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to urge lawmakers to provide more than $70 billion in emergency funds mostly to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the hearing, Rumsfeld was confronted with mounting concerns among senators over the risks of a civil war defend massive U.S. spending on the Iraq war.

He said that Iraqi security forces, not U.S. troops, should be the ones to try to deal with any civil war in Iraq.

“The plan is to prevent a civil war,” Rumsfeld said in response to questions by Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, at the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.

“And to the extent one were to occur to have the ... Iraqi security forces deal with it to the extent they’re able to.”

Rumsfeld continued to reject calls from many Democrats for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces, saying that risked "playing into the internal political dynamics going on" in Iraq. He said commanders would decided on troops reductions based on the situation on the ground.

Polls suggest deep pessimism
Rumsfeld's appearance came at a time when opinion polls show deep pessimism among the U.S. public over the war. An ABC News/Washington Post poll this week showed eight in 10 Americans believe recent violence in Iraq has made civil war likely nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion.

The United States has 132,000 troops in Iraq. There have been more than 2,300 U.S. military deaths in the way, with about 17,000 troops wounded in action.

Hundreds of people were killed in sectarian violence that flared after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Iraq’s four holiest Shiite shrines.

Byrd asked Rumsfeld, who said on Tuesday “there’s always been a potential for a civil war,” for an assurance that emergency war funds sought by the Bush administration would not be used to put U.S. troops “right in the middle of a full-blown Iraqi civil war.”

“Senator, I can say that certainly it is not the intention of the military commanders to allow that to happen. And ... at least thus far the situation has been such that the Iraqi security forces could for the most part deal with the problems that exist,” Rumsfeld said.

Democratic senators were skeptical.

“You’ve been telling the American people that the situation in Iraq is not that dire,” said Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. “But Mr. Secretary, with all due respect and speaking for a majority of the American people, that is hard to swallow. From the beginning, the administration’s Iraq strategy has been an amalgamation of misdirection and missteps.”

Rice, who spoke first to the committee, was briefly interrupted by a protester who shouted “blood is on your hands” and “how many of you have children going to war.”

After security escorted the man from the room, another protester interrupted, saying, “Fire Rumsfeld. Fire Rumsfeld. This is an illegal and immoral war.”

President Bush, whose low job approval ratings are partly because of the Iraq war, has refused to set a timetable for the troops to come home, saying troops can be withdrawn as Iraqi security forces take over security.