Up to 20,000 US troops may depart Iraq next year — general

BAGHDAD (AFP) — US troops may start withdrawing from Iraq next March, a US general said Tuesday, as the new US ambassador to the volatile country pledged to help Iraqis crush a ruthless insurgency.

As many as four or five US military brigades (up to 20,000 people) could leave then if the country’s ethnic groups can agree on a constitution and elect a government that has broad support, Lieutenant General John Vines said in Washington via video link from Iraq.

“I suspect we will probably draw down capability after the elections, because Iraqi security forces are more capable,” Vines said. He was referring to elections at the end of this year set to follow hoped-for approval of a new constitution in the autumn. The No. 2 US commander in Iraq predicted that the insurgency would dwindle rapidly if the political process were successful, but said any drawdown would depend on conditions on the ground.

In Britain, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told lawmakers the US-led coalition did not have an “open-ended” commitment to staying in the country.

But when asked for reassurance that progress was being made in Iraq Straw said: “Violence is at an unacceptable level, higher than was anticipated.”

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said Iraq would not be surprised and would understand if the United States begins to start withdrawing troops next year. “I would not be surprised… If there would be some withdrawal, let’s say early 2006, I think it would be understandable,” he said, speaking from Brussels.

“The more our forces assume responsibility, the less role the multinational force will have in Iraq,” he said.

The first indications that US-led forces are thinking about ways to leave the country came as Zalmay Khalilzad, the new US ambassador, vowed to work with Iraqis to crush its tenacious insurgents.

“I will work with Iraqis to break the back of the insurgency,” Khalilzad said after presenting his credentials to President Jalal Talabani in the heavily fortified complex where most American and Iraqi officials live. “Foreign terrorists and hardline Baathists want Iraq to be in a civil war,” he told reporters, referring to members of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.

Insurgents believed to be led by Sunni Arabs and extremist Abu Mussab Zarqawi kill scores of Iraqis almost daily, targeting members of the country’s security forces in particular.

Zebari, in Brussels on the eve of an international conference on rebuilding Iraq, warned NATO that the “consequences of failure” could resonate beyond the country’s borders.

“That’s why the stakes are high. That’s why we need the contributions and help of many countries,” Zebari told NATO ambassadors.

The Islamic Development Bank said it will make a $500-million loan, Kuwait offered a grant of $60 million and the Slovakian government decided to write off Iraq’s $1.12 million (900 thousand euros) debt.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States urged Iraq’s neighbours to give more debt relief to the country but held out little hope of any breakthrough at the conference.

She said the meeting of leaders from more than 80 countries and organisations was an opportunity to build “a new international partnership for Iraq” as it emerges from the US occupation.

But she was pessimistic on the chances of making any further headway with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on the key issue of Iraq’s massive debt, accumulated under ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

“I’m sure we’ll have those conversations, but I don’t expect that there will be really an outcome in that regard,” Rice told reporters accompanying her back from a swing through the Middle East.

Meanwhile, US and Iraqi forces battled insurgents for the fifth day in offensives in lawless Anbar province, which covers most of western Iraq.

“A total of 17 car bombs were located, including a tractor trailer, a dump truck and van rigged with explosives, which were destroyed in place by a Marine tank unit,” the US military said.

Karabilah is said to be a way station for insurgents and weapons smuggled in from Syria.

At least 53 insurgents have been killed during the fighting and 33 buildings damaged or destroyed, the US military said. Another 15 were killed in a separate offensive near Lake Tharthar, southeast of the Iraq-Syria border. Insurgent violence eased somewhat Tuesday, as attackers killed 11 people, including three police, north of Baghdad. A Bulgarian soldier stationed in Iraq died from injuries sustained in an accident last week.

About 70 insurgents, including a suspected Al Qaeda member, were arrested around the country, sources said.

And Zebari said Iraqi authorities have hundreds of Arab militants in detention in Baghdad, including people from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan and Syria.

Meanwhile, the Swedish foreign ministry announced that a Swedish man had been kidnapped and held hostage in Iraq for more than two months before being released three weeks ago.

The man, named in the Swedish media as 63-year-old Ulf Hjertstroem, told a newspaper that he had been kidnapped in Baghdad on March 25 and had been held for ransom under dreadful conditions until his May 30 release.

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