BAGHDAD, Iraq—Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday that the United States could begin to withdraw some troops from Iraq beginning early next year, if newly trained Iraqi security forces can shoulder more of the burden.
However, Rumsfeld cautioned that the violence in Iraq is likely to increase before the country's planned January elections. Speaking to as many as 2,000 Marines at a town hall meeting in a hanger at Al Asad air base in the desert about 150 miles northwest of the Iraqi capital, Rumsfeld said:
"Those who are determined to try to take back Iraq—to take it back to a dark place—have launched a vicious campaign of kidnappings, beheadings, suicide bombings. They're hoping to snuff out any signs of progress."
As Rumsfeld was making an unannounced whirlwind tour of Iraq by helicopter, jet and motorcade, suicide bombers detonated two car bombs within 15 minutes of each other in Baghdad on Sunday morning, killing at least 10 Iraqis and one American soldier, Iraqi and U.S. officials said. The American military also reported that a Marine was killed in action on Saturday in Anbar province, a hotbed of Sunni Muslim resistance.
A U.S. official in Washington, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because he's not an authorized administration spokesman, said Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists may mount more attacks in an effort to torpedo a tentative cease-fire with Shiite Muslim militiamen in Baghdad and negotiations to end the insurgents' control of the nearby city of Fallujah.
Iraqi national security adviser Kassim Daoud said Sunday that on Monday, members of the Mahdi Army, the militia led by renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, are to begin surrendering heavy weapons such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at three police stations in Sadr City, a largely Shiite slum in Baghdad.
Despite the rays of hope in Sadr City and Fallujah, Rumsfeld said unrest is likely to prevent any reduction in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq until the January elections, and any reduction after that will depend not only on standing up Iraqi forces, but also on quelling the insurgency.
"Our hope is that as we build up Iraqi forces we will be able to relieve the stress on our force and see a reduction in coalition forces over some period of time, probably close to Iraqi elections," Rumsfeld said. "But again, it's going to depend entirely on the security situation here in this country."
In his sixth visit to Iraq since last year's U.S.-led invasion, Rumsfeld highlighted efforts to equip and train Iraqi soldiers, police, border guards and other security forces as he met with U.S. military and diplomatic leaders and interim Iraqi government officials.
Rumsfeld said U.S. and Iraqi officials expect to have equipped and trained as many as 145,000 Iraqi security forces by the elections.
It remains to be seen whether that goal will be met and whether those forces will be proficient enough to have an impact by January. Rumsfeld and U.S. military officials have pointed to Iraqi forces' contributions to victories in the restive cities of Samarra and Najaf as evidence of their abilities.
In Baghdad, Rumsfeld met with U.S. ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte and Army Gen. George Casey, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq. When asked whether he and Casey had discussed whether more or fewer U.S. forces would be needed in Iraq before the elections, Rumsfeld deferred to the general.
Casey said he didn't discuss the issue with Rumsfeld. "I think it's instructive that the subject never came up. If I need more troops, as the secretary said, I will ask for them."
Rumsfeld also flew to the city of Kirkuk, where he reviewed some 50 Iraqi national guard and police recruits working with U.S. forces. He later visited a Korean military base near the northern city of Irbil before departing for Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia in the Balkans.
(Hannah reports for the Contra Costa Times.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.