Rumsfeld Visits to Pressure Iraqis on Constitution

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld makes an unannounced visit to Baghdad, where he urged Iraqi negotiators to complete work on a draft constitution by the August deadline. The top American military commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said U.S. troops could begin withdrawing by next spring or summer if all goes well.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made an unannounced visit to Baghdad today, meeting with Iraq's prime minister, Ibrahim Al-Jafari. Jafari restated his government's request that US forces leave once Iraqi forces are able to take over the fight against insurgents. He gave no timetable, but the top American military commander in Iraq said troop withdrawals could begin in the first half of next year. From Baghdad, NPR's Tom Bullock reports.

TOM BULLOCK reporting:

With Secretary Rumsfeld in town, General George Casey was hardly the main attraction at today's press conference, but it was General Casey, the top commander of US troops in Iraq, who made the most important announcement.

General GEORGE CASEY (Commander of US Troops in Iraq): If the political process continues to go positively and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll still be able to take some fairly substantial reductions in the spring and summer of next year.

BULLOCK: This announcement undoubtedly comes as welcome news to the more than 140,000 US troops now serving in Iraq and for their families back home. But General Casey has made similar predictions before. A few months ago, he said US troop levels could be cut this year. Then an insurgent offensive timed to the announcement of a new Iraqi government changed all that.

Insurgent attacks continue. Today, a car bomb at an Iraqi hospital in Baghdad killed at least five. And two Algerian diplomats kidnapped in Baghdad last week have been killed by their abductors according to an Internet site believed to have ties with al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, raids on suspected insurgent sites continue as well.

But relatively few Iraq units are seen by their US counterparts as being able to undertake these kinds of missions without American military assistance, something that needs to change before the number of US troops in Iraq can be reduced.

Amid this fighting, slow progress is being made in Iraq's political circles.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BULLOCK: At another press conference today, members of the committee drafting Iraq's constitution told reporters they believe that the document will be finished by the August 15th deadline. They handed out copies of a proposed bill of rights and a section which calls for all militias in Iraq to be disarmed, something Iraq's Kurds, who have the most powerful militia in the country, say they will not do.

There are other contentious issues still waiting to be decided and often mutually exclusive demands made by Iraq's majority Shiite and minority Kurd and Sunni groups. The constitutional drafting committee has until Monday to ask for a six-month extension, which if taken would push back both the October constitutional referendum and the scheduled December election of a new Iraqi government. It would likely also cause the delay of any reduction of US troops of Iraq. It seems clear one major goal of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's brief visit to Baghdad today was to push Iraqi officials to get the constitution done. One of his first comments: `We don't want any delays. It's time for compromise. That's what politics is all about.'

All three of Iraq's political groups--Sunni, Shiite and Kurd--are calling their leaders to Baghdad later this week for a high-level summit to hammer out the final difficult details of Iraq's constitution in hopes it can be finished on time. Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad.

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