White House says troop reductions should be coming

By Adam Entous

EL PASO, Texas - The White House has said that Iraqi forces should be sufficiently trained to permit a reduction in US troops in Iraq next year as President George W Bush worked to convince an increasingly wary American public that his strategy can succeed.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush would focus in a speech on Wednesday at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, on efforts to train Iraqi security forces to take over for the 155,000 US troops now in Iraq.

"The president believes the American people should have a clear understanding of our strategy," McClellan told reporters traveling with Bush in El Paso, where he toured a section of the US-Mexican border.

Bush, speaking to reporters along the border, said any decision on drawing down US troop levels in Iraq would be based on whether US commanders on the ground in Iraq believe Iraqi forces are sufficiently prepared to fight the insurgency.

"The commanders will make the decisions, that's what the people want. The people don't want me making decisions based upon politics. They want me to make decisions based upon the recommendations from our generals on the ground," Bush said.

McClellan said the White House would also release on its website an unclassified document describing the administration's "national strategy" for Iraq. It was unclear what, if any, new information the document would include.

Public support for the 2-1/2 year war in Iraq has waned in recent months amid rising US troop casualties. The Bush administration has faced growing political pressure to set out its plans for bringing troops home.

McClellan said Bush would use the speech to argue against setting "arbitrary timetables" for US troops to withdraw from Iraq. But McClellan said a shift was expected next year.

"In 2006, the expectation is the conditions will be changed on the ground. We can make real progress with training Iraqi security forces and that conditions will permit us to be able to reduce our presence," McClellan said.

"But again it will always be based on conditions on the ground," he added.

Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States may not need the number of troops it has in Iraq "all that much longer."

In Washington, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued against an early US pullout.

"Would America and the world be better off -- would the American people be safer -- if the US were to abandon the effort in Iraq prematurely, allowing terrorists to prevail?" he said in remarks prepared for delivery at a news conference later in the day.

He added: "Quitting is not an exit strategy. It would be a formula for putting the American people at still greater risk and an invitation for more terrorist violence."

Rumsfeld listed advances made by US-trained Iraqi security forces, who he said now number about 212,000. He also said US forces have turned over control of 29 military bases to the Iraqis and that the Iraqi security forces were assuming a more prominent role in fighting insurgents.

With political pressure building on Bush to change course in Iraq, US officials have tried to reassure Americans that enough progress was being made training Iraqi forces to possibly permit some US troops to leave.

The Pentagon plans to shrink the American presence -- now at 155,000 -- to about 138,000 after the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections and is considering dropping to about 100,000 around mid-2006 if conditions allow, defence officials said last week.

- REUTERS

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