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Bush: Troop reductions in Iraq possible this year

WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush said on reducing U.S. troops in Iraq was possible in 2006, but a New Year’s push to emphasize progress to skeptical Americans was marred by a fresh spasm of violence which killed dozens of Iraqis.

Bush reiterated that any reductions would be based on the situation on the ground and decisions by military commanders, not on a political timetable imposed by Washington, in a rejection of demands by some Democrats for a phased pullout.

Critics have demanded a quick withdrawal from Iraq, where nearly 2,200 American military personnel have been killed since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and say the president needs a clear exit strategy.

Bush has refused to set a schedule, saying that would only embolden the enemy, and that a pullout would be dictated by the progress of Iraqi forces in taking over security.

«Later this year, if Iraqis continue to make progress on the security and political side that we expect, we can discuss further possible adjustments with the leaders of a new government in Iraq,» Bush said at the Pentagon.

He said a reduction of U.S. troops planned after last months Iraqi election was under way and would result in a net decrease of several thousand troops below the preelection total of 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

That decrease comes on top of the reduction of about 20,000 troops who were in Iraq to assist with security during the December election.

Bush spoke after a briefing with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Peter Pace, and U.S. commanders for Iraq.

No decisions were made at the meeting about possible U.S. troop reductions in Iraq later in the year, and such decisions were unlikely before spring, a defense official said on condition of anonymity.

The military was still looking at a possible reduction to 100,000 U.S. troops by later this year, the official said.

Violence flared across Iraq in the bloodiest day for weeks after a suicide bomber struck a Shi’ite funeral and gunmen ambushed a fuel convoy outside Baghdad in a wave of attacks that killed nearly 60 people.

Bush cited progress in training Iraqi forces to fight the insurgency themselves, saying more than 125 Iraqi combat battalions are now fighting, with 50 playing a lead role.

«In 2006 the mission is to continue to hand over more and more territory and more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces,» Bush said.

Public opinion polls last year showed Americans growing increasingly weary of the Iraq war. Bush has cited the December 15 elections as major progress toward democracy in Iraq and urged patience in allowing the process to play out.

«To form this inclusive government, the Iraqi leaders must compromise and negotiate and build consensus, and this is going to take some time,» he said.

«What the American people will see during the weeks ahead is a political process unfolding — that people will be making decisions not based upon who’s got the biggest gun but who’s got the capacity to rally the will of the people,» he said.

He also cautioned that despite the elections, the insurgents were unlikely to stop attacks. «We understand that. And we’re going to stay on the offense against these.»