US may leave Iraq early

2009-07-29 16:04
Aboard a US military aircraft - The United States is considering speeding up its withdrawal from Iraq because of the sustained drop in violence there, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said following discussions with his top commanders in the war.

"I think there's at least some chance of a modest acceleration this year", Gates said.

It was the first suggestion that the Obama administration might rethink its difficult choice to leave a heavy fighting force in Iraq long past the election of an American president who opposed the war.

Gates said the consideration came because the situation is "better than expected."

Perhaps one of the current 14 combat units could come home early, Gates said, which would mean a cut of roughly 5 000 people.

Continued bad blood between Iraq's Arab-led central government and the self-ruled Kurdish region in the north represents the major wild card to a faster pullout, Gates spokesperson Geoff Morrell said.

Concern is growing that North-South tensions over land and resources could become a shooting war once US forces leave. Gates spent much of his two-day visit in Iraq warning both sides that US forces will not be around to keep the peace forever, and he offered US help to mediate.

"These are some fundamental issues, and I think it's important that both the government in Baghdad and the Kurds have pursued them through political means so far", Gates told reporters after meeting Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish self-ruled area.

An ebb in violence

Gates said he told his hosts all sides had spent "too much in blood and treasure" since the 2003 US invasion to risk losing it now.

The United States has about 130 000 forces in Iraq, with current plans calling for combat forces of more than 100 000 troops - to remain in the country until after Iraqi national elections in January.

Gates gave no other specifics, and stressed that the idea is preliminary and tied to continued good news in Iraq.

"It depends on circumstances; it may or may not happen," he said.

The top US commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, raised the possibility during Gates' two-day trip to Iraq. If Odierno follows up with a formal recommendation, it would come sometime this fall.

It was largely because of Odierno's worry that the coming Iraqi election would trigger a rebound in violence that President Barack Obama decided on a very slow withdrawal. The decision, announced in February, disappointed many anti-war Democrats.

Under the current plan, the United States would draw down from 14 brigades to 12 this year. After the January election, the withdrawal pace would quicken, leaving about 50 000 forces in Iraq by September 2010.

Violence is at an ebb in Iraq, and Odierno said on Tuesday that he has been pleasantly surprised at how few problems have arisen following a June 30 handover of control of Iraqi cities.

Read more on:    united states  |  iraq

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