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Powell: Troops in Iraq must be reduced

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at a media conference at the European Council in Brussels, in 2003. Virginia Mayo / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday that President Bush's successor will have to come to grips with the reality that the United States cannot continue to keep such large numbers of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Without taking sides in the race for the White House, Powell said, "Whichever one of them becomes president on Jan. 1, 2009, they will face a military force that cannot continue to sustain 140,000 people deployed in Iraq and the 20 (thousand) odd or 25,000 people we have deployed in Afghanistan and our other deployments."

Powell's comments in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" seemed to undercut Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting John McCain's position that the U.S. should stay the course in Iraq. But Powell also said that the next president will face limitations on bringing troops home, as Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton — rivals for the Democratic nomination — have promised to do.

"They will have to continue to draw down at some pace," he said. "None of them are going to have the flexibility of just saying we're out of here, turn off the switch, turn off the lights, we're leaving. They will have a situation before them."

Powell, who is a former chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued publicly for the invasion of Iraq early in Bush's presidency. He said Thursday that he considers each of the presidential candidates a friend.

"I'm looking at all three candidates ... I have not decided who I will vote for yet," said Powell, who donated $2,300 to McCain's campaign last year.

Powell praised Obama's response to controversial remarks by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who said the United States brought the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on itself by supporting terrorism and that the government created the AIDS virus to "destroy people of color."

"I thought that Senator Obama handled the issue well," said Powell, the nation's first black secretary of state. "He didn't abandon the minister that brought him closer to his faith, but at the same time he deplored the kinds of statements that the Reverend Wright had made."