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Military Brass Revise Timetable for Troops in Iraq


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


I'm Melissa Block.

And we begin this hour with the situation in Iraq. As in most days, there was violence. At least 60 people were killed in a string of car bombings in Balad, a town north of Baghdad. And five US Marines died in a roadside bombing in Ramadi, one of the hotbeds of the insurgency west of the capital. In a few minutes we'll hear from Anne Garrels, who's been to a former insurgent base, Fallujah.

NORRIS: But first, to Capitol Hill, where Pentagon leaders gave an update to members of Congress. The top US commander in Iraq was very cautious about a possible drawdown in US forces. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

General George Casey previously had said that a substantial drawdown of US forces could begin next spring and summer, assuming conditions in Iraq did not worsen. Several members of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked Casey today if he still stands by that assessment. The general said, `Much depends on what happens as Iraq moves toward a referendum on its constitution and then elections.'

(Soundbite of hearing)

General GEORGE CASEY (US Commander in Iraq): The next 75 days are going to be critical in what happens after that. And so I'd like to wait until we get through this political process here to give you a better assessment of that.

O'HARA: US military leaders have predicted an increase in violence as the political process moves forward. A key step will be the constitutional referendum in October. Casey told lawmakers that he thinks the constitution will be approved but without much support from Iraq's Sunni minority. That prompted this question from Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): If there's a strong majority of Sunnis, which is very possible, that vote against that constitution, could that not possibly lead to a worsening political situation rather than a better one?

Gen. CASEY: I think that's entirely possible, Senator. I mean, as we've looked at this, we've looked for the constitution to be a national compact. And the perception now is that it's not, particularly among the Sunnis.

O'HARA: The senators also heard from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, General Richard Myers, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command. Rumsfeld agreed that polls indicate a majority of Sunnis will vote against the constitution.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): The positive side of it is they do plan to participate fully in the election.

O'HARA: Nonetheless, Senator Levin urged the Pentagon's top leaders to give the Iraqis a strong message.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Sen. LEVIN: ...that the presence of our forces in Iraq is not unlimited because if they think that, they are less likely to make the compromises necessary to reach a political settlement.

O'HARA: Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona had some sharp questions for General Casey about the training of Iraqi security forces, a critical factor in any decision to draw down US troops. General Casey told McCain that the number of Iraqi battalions that are fully trained and equipped has dropped from three to one. McCain's Republican colleague Susan Collins of Maine said that kind of news contributes to a loss of public confidence in the conduct of the war.

(Soundbite of hearing)

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): It doesn't feel like progress when we hear today that we have only one Iraqi battalion that is fully capable.

O'HARA: General Casey responded that `fully capable' means being able to operate without any US assistance. He said that is a very high standard for the Iraqis to maintain, in part because of institutional problems, including a reliable system for paying the Iraqi forces. General Myers pointed out that Iraq now has 86 battalions operating with US forces compared to just a handful a year ago. General Casey told lawmakers that by the December elections, the number of available Iraqi security forces will have increased to the point that he has asked for only 2,000 additional US troops to provide election security. Casey noted that he asked for 12,000 additional US troops for the Iraqi elections last January. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vicky O'Hara
Victoria (Vicky) O'Hara is a diplomatic correspondent for NPR. Her coverage of the State Department and foreign policy issues can be heard on the award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition as well as on NPR's newscasts.