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Rice Suggests U.S. Troop Drawdown Is Approaching

Iraqis' capabilities are improving enough to allow Americans to hand off tasks, she says.

November 23, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that Iraqi forces would "fairly soon" be able to defend their country, sending one of the clearest signals yet that the Bush administration is considering a sizable drawdown of its forces in Iraq.

In two television interviews, Rice said senior American officials believed that Iraqi forces were quickly gaining the ability to take on more difficult tasks, such as holding territory, and thus able to confront the insurgency with less reliance on U.S. troops than in the past.

"The president has said that as soon as Iraqi forces are ready, we want to see a reduction in our own forces. And I think those days are going to be coming fairly soon when Iraqis are going to be more and more capable of carrying out the functions to secure their own future," she told Fox News. "I do not think that American forces need to be there in the numbers that they are now ... for very much longer, because Iraqis are stepping up."

She told CNN that American leaders believed Iraqis were "carrying out more functions" that previously had been beyond their capability.

"The number of coalition forces is clearly going to come down, because Iraqis are making it possible to do those functions themselves," she said.

Although there has been speculation that the administration could reduce the U.S. contingent next year by tens of thousands of troops, President Bush has rejected timetables, saying that defining a schedule would hearten the insurgents and encourage them to wait out the American withdrawal.

Last weekend, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld again rebuffed questions about timetables, saying that moves to draw down personnel would be "conditions based." In other words, U.S. officials would send no signals until they were convinced that Iraqi troops who had been trained were prepared to shoulder more of the burden.

Rice's words suggest those conditions may be closer than U.S. officials had indicated to date.

She made her comments as Bush's poll ratings hovered near all-time lows, in part due to falling support for the war, and opponents of the war had taken to speaking out more boldly.

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