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Pentagon plans to have fewer soldiers in Iraq after elections

WASHINGTON—The Pentagon plans to reduce troop levels in Iraq to 137,000 after the Iraqi election Dec. 15 and may cancel the deployment of two Army brigades if security conditions permit in the coming weeks, defense officials said Thursday.

U.S. troop strength in Iraq is currently at 155,000. A reduction to 137,000 would take force levels down to where they were about a month ago, before the Pentagon increased them for greater security in the period around the election.

Officials said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hadn't signed off on a plan to draw down U.S. forces. They noted that the military has all kinds of plans, including some for sending in more troops if security conditions worsen.

A defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak publicly until a decision is made, said the plan being discussed would leave the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, in Kuwait, instead of sending it to Iraq at the end of December. Part of the brigade could return to its base in Germany, while others would remain in Kuwait as a "quick-reaction force" in case fighting in Iraq worsened.

In addition, the deployment of the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, based at Fort Riley, Kan., would be canceled, the official said. However, smaller teams of 12 to 24 soldiers each would be sent to Iraq and embedded as trainers within Iraqi army battalions.

Other officials also indicated that the two brigades, which would total about 7,000 soldiers, might not be needed in Iraq.

After meeting Thursday with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, Rumsfeld said that any decision would be determined by what happened after the election. While he said he expected troop strength to return to 137,000, he added that "if conditions permit, we can go below that."

U.S. plans call for reducing the number of American soldiers in Iraq slowly over the next year as Iraqi police and military units are trained.

Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who just returned from a visit to Iraq, said he was encouraged by what he saw there.

"There's clearly progress being made," said Marshall, a former Army Ranger and a Vietnam veteran. "We can expect some setbacks. That's only natural. The progress that's most encouraging is that Iraqi security forces are now taking over responsibility for policing large areas of their country. (During the next year) I think we'll see substantial numbers of U.S. troops drawing down, really."

However, he warned that American efforts in Iraq still could fail if support for the war declined in the United States.

Rumsfeld on Thursday also denied a recent news report that he planned to retire early next year.

"Those reports have been flying around since about four months after I assumed my post in 2001," said Rumsfeld, who's 73. "I have no plans to retire."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.