Rice hints at lower U.S. troop levels

Posted in United States | 27-Mar-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

In this photo provided by FOX News, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appears on 'Fox News Sunday' with host Chris Wallace in Washington, Sunday, March 26, 2006.
WASHINGTON Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday that reductions in U.S. forces in Iraq in the coming year were "entirely possible," apparently seeking to offset any impression that they might not come for years.

She also said that Washington would query Moscow about a Pentagon report that Russians had shared with Baghdad elements of the U.S. invasion plan.

"We take very seriously any suggestion that a foreign government may have passed information to the Iraqis prior to the American invasion that might have put our troops in danger," Rice said on Fox-TV. But she said she could neither confirm nor deny the report.

Her prediction on troop strength in Iraq underscored the message from U.S. military and political leaders that a drawdown there was likely if the country remained on track toward democracy and if Iraqi security forces made further progress toward autonomy.

But her comment, made on three television interview programs, also may have been designed to offset the less- upbeat impression left when President George W. Bush told a questioner last week that the decision for complete withdrawal would be up to "future presidents."

Rice referred on Fox-TV to earlier comments by General George Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who told Congress last autumn that reducing American troop levels would begin "taking away an element that fuels the insurgency." An Iraqi spokesman for a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee of which Casey is a member said in January that the troop level could reach 100,000 by year's end, down from the current benchmark of 135,000.

If coalition training of Iraqi troops and the police makes it possible to continue turning over larger swaths of territory to their control, Rice said, "then it is entirely likely that there will be drawdowns of American forces over the course of this next year." She did not say whether she meant the calendar year or the coming 12-month period.

The report that Russians might have leaked portions of the U.S. invasion plan to Iraq was murkier, however. Rice said the United States would investigate it and ask Moscow for elucidation. She did not rule out the possibility that the information could have been passed as part of a disinformation campaign.

The information came from Iraqi documents captured by American forces after the invasion. Those documents indicated, Pentagon briefers said Friday, that information obtained by a Russian source within the U.S. Central Command had been passed to Baghdad before the attack.

While some of the information proved accurate - such as the idea that U.S. ground forces coming from Kuwait would pass through the Karbala area - a key fact was wrong. The incursion from Kuwait was not a diversionary force but the main focus of the attack.

A Pentagon report on the matter, titled "Iraqi Perspectives Project," did not explicitly address the possibility of disinformation, but said that "such external sources of information were only one of the fog-generators obscuring the minds of Iraq's senior leadership."