U.S. troop withdrawal plans back on track

The Bush administration, determining that stability has been restored, plans to continue the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

Officials said the Defense Department was preparing to withdraw at least 30,000 troops from Iraq by September 2006. They said the pace of the pullout would depend on the security situation and the capability of Iraq's military and security forces, Middle East Newsline reported.

"We want to restore the momentum," an official said. "The Iraqi government has been informed of our plans."

Officials disclosed the U.S. withdrawal plans during a visit to Baghdad by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Both met U.S. and Iraqi officials and discussed plans for a withdrawal drafted by Gen. George Casey, commander of Multinational Force Iraq.

"So we are seeing the situation a little clearer, I'd say, and the clearer I see it, the better I can make my recommendations [on troop reductions]," Casey said on Wednesday.

From late December 2005 through early March, the U.S. military reduced its troop level from 165,000 to 132,000, officials said. They said the troop level has remained stable over the last six weeks amid rising sectarian violence that stemmed from the Al Qaida bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samara in February.

Over the last few weeks, however, the U.S. military command in Iraq has determined that the situation in Iraq has stabilized. Officials said the command concluded that the Iraqi military and security forces would not disintegrate into warring ethnic factions.

Casey said two Iraq Army divisions, 14 brigades and more than 50 battalions have been taking the lead in operations. He envisioned a huge expansion in the role of Iraqi troops over the next few months.

"By the end of this summer," Casey said, "we think that will be up to about 75 percent of the Iraqi brigades, and by the end of the year, about 80 percent of the Iraqi divisions, so that process is continuing."

Casey said the U.S. military has set criteria for the transfer of security responsibility to Iraq. He said the U.S.-led coalition would increasingly cede authority over territory to the Iraqi military and police in 2006.

"We have worked with the Iraqis to develop some criteria for that; the governors have been briefed on that; and that process is moving forward," Casey said. "And so you'll see some provinces starting to move in that direction -- the direction of Iraqi control -- over the coming months."

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