US said to be planning long-term presence in Iraq

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The White House Sunday backed an eventual withdrawal of most US troops from Iraq after a report said detailed plans are afoot to retain a smaller military presence in the war-torn country for years.The Washington Post said US military officials are in early planning for a “sharp drawdown” of troops beginning by the middle of next year.

President George W. Bush’s spokesman, Tony Snow, declined to confirm or deny the report but said the immediate onus is on Iraqi authorities to end political discord and insurgent violence.

The Post said roughly two-thirds of the current force would leave Iraq by late 2008 or early 2009, and officials are grappling over the shape and size of a “post-occupation” presence that would last “for years.”

“At some point certainly we do want to be in a position to be able to pull back,” Snow told CBS television, while stressing “that anything that happens on the ground is going to be in response to conditions on the ground.”

US forces could remain as a rapid-response back-up for “Iraqis handling all the frontline business” of security, the spokesman said.

But Iraqi authorities must also “develop the political basis that is going to encourage people to see themselves as part of an Iraqi government and to cooperate in going after insurgents and foreign fighters and others who are trying to blow up the democracy, literally and figuratively.”

A suicide bomber killed nine Iraqi policemen and wounded dozens more on Sunday when he exploded his truck outside a police post near Tikrit, the northern hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

In the face of bloody violence blamed on Al Qaeda extremists along with Sunni and Shiite factions, Bush has ordered the deployment of more than 21,500 extra troops to Iraq, bringing the total to 160,000 by this month.

US General David Petraeus, commander of allied forces in Iraq, is due to report back in September on the surge’s impact as many Democrats agitate for an early withdrawal of US troops.

The Post report came after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Friday he was replacing General Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to avoid a divisive showdown over Iraq in Congress.

Pace’s departure will leave none of the top commanders who oversaw the 2003 invasion of Iraq in place.

Then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, bowed out a month after the Democrats retook control of Congress in November.

Snow denied that the wholesale shake-up was the clearest harbinger of an about-face by Bush in Iraq as the clock winds down on his second term.

“No, I don’t think so. What he [Gates] was doing is, frankly, acknowledging an unpleasant fact about politics,” he said.

“There would be contentious, backward-looking hearings [if Pace was re-nominated].”

But speaking on CNN, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh said Gates was “bringing on a new crew that will be more candid and more realistic about what needs to be done in Iraq.”

“And that is a good thing,” added Bayh, a member of the Senate armed services committee.

The Washington Post said the plan’s centrepiece would be a division of around 20,000 infantry soldiers assigned to guarantee the security of the Iraqi government and to assist Iraqi forces or their US advisers.

“A reduction of troops, some officials argue, would demonstrate to anti-American factions that the occupation will not last forever while reassuring Iraqi allies that the United States does not intend to abandon the country,” it said.

A training force of close to 10,000 troops would work with Iraqi military and police units, while a “small but significant” special forces unit would stay focused on fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq.

“I think you’ll retain a very robust counter-terror capability in this country for a long, long time,” one Pentagon official was quoted as saying.

The United States would also retain a headquarters and logistical force numbering more than 10,000 troops and civilian contractors in Iraq, the Post said.

Bush and other officials have taken to invoking South Korea as an example of a protracted US presence in a country long after formal hostilities have ended.

Senator John McCain, a Republican contender in the 2008 presidential race, refused to be drawn on a Korea-type timeline for US forces to stay in Iraq.

“But I could see us in a training and advisory capacity for a long time,” he told ABC.

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