Top General Sees Troop Cuts Coming in Iraq

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The top U.S. commander in Iraq says American troop strength in the country could be significantly cut in 2006 if a stable government is formed and training of Iraqi forces continues at its current pace. Gen. George Casey says local police and military have made considerable progress in recent months.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The top American commander in Iraq says the Iraqi police and military have made significant progress in recent months, and that makes it more likely that he will ask for further cuts in the 130,000 American troops now there. General George Casey will make his recommendation on troop strength to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this spring. NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren sat down with General Casey in his Baghdad office, and he sent us this report.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

With the Bush administration facing increasing pressure from even Republicans in Congress, and from an American public increasingly opposed to the war, it's an open secret that the Pentagon is looking for the chance to reduce the U.S. presence here. If current trends continue, Casey suggests, the prospects for another cut are looking up. The four-star who oversees the war on the ground says he hopes to have three-quarters of Iraqi army brigades taking the lead in the areas they patrol by the end of the year. The Pentagon is now focusing on Iraq's troubled police force, revamping training after discovering jails in which some American military officials say Iraqi commando squads were torturing and starving inmates.

General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Army, Iraq): We're making very good progress with both the military and the police. The political process and situation has to continue to make progress, and then the security forces have to continue to progress. If those two things happen, we have some good possibilities for further reductions over the course of the year.

HENDREN: Political progress, says Casey, is coming along more slowly. It's likely to be months before Iraq forms a new government after last December's parliamentary election.

General CASEY: It's going to be a long process, I think. I mean, I think there's no way around that. But I think it's so important for the country that the Iraqis produce a government that is viewed by all Iraqis as broadly representative of their interest, that if it takes a little longer it takes a little longer.

HENDREN: And factional tensions in and outside of the government threaten to unravel those slow-moving signs of progress. U.S. and Iraqi officials say the largely Sunni Muslim insurgency is trying to drive a wedge between the Sunni minority and the majority Shiites. A bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed several Iraqis and wounded 27, mostly Shiites who had gathered to celebrate the Ashura religious festival. The former top commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, recently sent troops back with a warning that the country is on the verge of a civil war. Some lawmakers agree. Tariq al-Hashimi is a Sunni political leader.

Mr. TARIQ AL-HASHIMI (Sunni political leader): We visualize the situation becoming very, very critical, and could lead into an actual civil war. Unless there will be a government of national unity, nobody can immune the future of the country against any contingencies.

HENDREN: Casey doesn't buy that.

General CASEY: There are sectarian tensions here. I don't think there's any question about that. But I think we're removed from a civil war situation where this spark can set it off. But there are some tensions that are being dealt with by the leaders, and they need to continue to be dealt with by the leaders. But the notion that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, I reject that.

HENDREN: In fact, he says, some Iraqi insurgents have engaged in firefights with the small but influential bands of foreign fighters who are thought to finance and lead part of the insurgency. That confirms local rumors.

General CASEY: In various parts of the country, Iraqis are getting tired of the al-Qaeda levels of violence directed against Iraqi civilians. And more and more we're seeing Iraqis coming together against the terrorists and the foreign fighters that are here and have been murdering Iraqi civilians. We are seeing out in the west groups going against individuals in al-Qaeda because of terrorist acts that they've conducted against their tribe or against their groups.

HENDREN: It's hard to define victory against an insurgency. Pentagon officials tend to avoid the word nowadays, saying they are preparing Iraq to take on its own security problems. Casey says before Iraq can become stable, it will have to address the root causes of the insurgency and the economic and development problems that have bedeviled it for years.

John Hendren, NPR News, Baghdad.

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