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U.S. has ‘late summer’ goal to reduce forces

Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said Friday that some of the extra troops that President Bush ordered to Baghdad could begin leaving by late summer if conditions allow.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said Friday it’s possible some of 21,500 additional troops that President Bush ordered to Baghdad won’t be needed there more than just a few months.

“I think it’s probably going to be the summer, late summer, before you get to the point where people in Baghdad feel safe in their neighborhoods,” Casey told reporters at a news conference with visiting Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Gates’ visit here — his second since replacing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last month — was not announced in advance. It comes as the Bush administration begins a new phase in the war including a troop buildup that has encountered widespread opposition in Congress, a reshuffling of Mideast commanders and diplomats, and intensified military pressure on Iran.

“Our goal is an Iraq that can defend itself, sustain itself, and govern itself, and live free from the scourge of extremism,” said Gates. “There’s widespread agreement here that failure would be a calamity for American national interests and those of many other countries as well.”

Gates, who headed home after a daylong visit, met with U.S. commanders and their allied counterparts.

The first group of extra troops — a brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division — has just arrived in Baghdad, and Gates said it was too early to predict how Bush’s plan for quelling the sectarian violence in the capital will work. Four other brigades are to be sent to Iraq between now and May, assuming the Iraqis follow through on their commitment to bring three additional Iraqi army brigades into Baghdad and to allow raids against all illegal militias.

Asked how the Iraqi government was doing to meet its commitments, Casey said, “So far, so good.”

Casey is being replaced soon by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, although the timing is uncertain. Casey has been nominated to become the next chief of staff of the Army, but he has not yet been confirmed in that job by the Senate.

The troop buildup is scheduled to unfold in phases, with the full contingent of five extra brigades not in place until May. However, Britain, which has the largest troop contingent among the U.S. allies with about 7,000 soldiers in the Basra area, is planning to withdraw a large portion of them this year.

Gates said at the outset of his weeklong overseas trip that he realized the security situation in southern Iraq is different than in Baghdad, where the United States is building up its troop strength.

Gates and Casey took a cargo plane to the Tallil air base near the ancient city of Ur and about 10 miles from the southern city of Nasiriyah. They met there with commanders from several coalition countries, including Australia, Poland, Romania and Denmark.

A British military spokesman in Basra told reporters that no “hard evidence” had been obtained of Iranian arms, money or weapons technology entering southern Iraq, but he added, “As a gut feeling we know there is Iranian influence” here. The predominantly Shiite Muslim areas of southern Iraq have historic ties to Iran, which is a predominantly Shiite nation.

The Bush administration has accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs and contributing technology and bomb-making materials for insurgents to use against U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

The British spokesman, Maj. Chris Ormond-King, also said it was possible that Basra province, which includes the city of the same name, could be turned over to full Iraqi government control by this spring. He said there is no firm timetable. Basra is Iraq’s second-largest city after Baghdad.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, the top British commander in Iraq said Friday that the Iraqi government has $7 billion to buy the military equipment it wants. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted this week as complaining that the Bush administration has not sent enough weapons and equipment.

“They’ve got the wherewithal to get on and buy whatever they need as they see fit to defend this nation,” said British Army Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, deputy commander of coalition forces in Iraq.

Lamb also said that British troops are expected to stay in Iraq through 2007, and he sees no reason they would not stay beyond that into 2008 if asked.