Rumsfeld suggests U.S. troop cuts in Iraq

U.S. Defense Secretary &to=' target=_blank>Donald H. Rumsfeld hinted Thursday that the U.S. military will soon begin reducing its troop strength in Iraq below 138,000, the level it has considered its core force in the country for most of this year.

On an unannounced holiday visit to the Iraqi capital, Rumsfeld hinted a preliminary decision had been made to achieve the modest reduction by canceling the scheduled deployment of two Army brigades.

The cancellation of the deployments would gradually decrease the number of troops in Iraq by 6,000 to 7,000, said a Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement was not yet final. The official said that would bring the troop level in the country to a little above 130,000 sometime next spring,

The U.S. temporarily built up its forces in Iraq to about 160,000 to provide extra security during the Oct. 15 referendum and the Dec. 15 election. Rumsfeld had previously said those 20,000 extra troops would be leaving soon, and said Thursday that the latest reductions being considered would be in addition to those.

The decision comes as the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is under pressure by critics to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. Bush, however, has rejected talk of a withdrawal timetable, saying this would only embolden the insurgency, leave the U.S. prone to new attacks and undercut the goal of securing a stable future for the new Iraq.

In an interview with reporters traveling with him on an Air Force cargo plane to Baghdad, Rumsfeld hinted that a preliminary decision had been made to go below the 138,000 baseline by not deploying a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kan., and a 1st Armored Division brigade now in Kuwait. Other officials have said small parts of each brigade were likely to go anyway.

Asked whether he'd made the decision to hold back those two brigades, Rumsfeld made a distinction between his decisions as defense secretary and final announcements by the U.S. government.

"Until it's announced, the government's decision hasn't been announced. Therefore it's not final," he said.

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