The White House on Monday played down reports that the United States is planning sharp troop withdrawals from Iraq, beginning with the pullout of two combat brigades in September. Meanwhile, at least 40 people were killed when bombs tore through markets in two Iraqi cities.
Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top military commander in Iraq, has outlined a strategy that could cut the number of combat troops in Iraq by nearly two-thirds by the end of next year — bringing the current total American troop figure down from 127,000 to between 50,000 and 75,000. None of his plan, including a modest initial reduction of 7,000 troops this fall, has been agreed upon, CBS News correspondent David Martin reports.
President Bush said that troop reductions will depend on the ability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to — if not defeat the insurgency — at least suppress the violence, Martin reports.
"In terms of our troop presence there, that decision will be made by Gen. Casey, as well as the sovereign government of iraq, based upon conditions on the ground," President Bush said.
Mr. Bush brushed aside reports that Casey had plans for sending home two combat brigades of American troops by September without replacing them.
Tony Snow, Mr. Bush's press secretary, said later that such a plan was one of several under consideration.
"General Casey proposes lots of things and actually laid out more than one option. And everybody's fastening on one," Snow said. "Certainly that's under consideration, but I would warn against saying this is what he's saying, this is what he wants."
The latest bombings came as a reminder of just how difficult establishing security can be in many areas of Iraq. Both markets were jammed with shoppers buying dinner provisions as temperatures began to cool after sunset.
Still, as Martin reports, the current level of U.S. troops is already the lowest in two years, and the Army has begun shipping home thousands of pieces of heavy equipment that are no longer needed as the U.S. hands bases over to the Iraqi army.
Democrats cited stories on Casey's reported plan to criticize the White House and its allies in Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged his Senate colleagues "to note how similar General Casey's apparent plan to withdraw U.S. forces is to the plan put forward by Senate Democrats last week." That plan was rejected by majority-party Republicans.
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The Times also said the Casey plan envisioned eventually cutting U.S. forces from the current 14 brigades to five or six by the end of 2007.
The first reductions would involve two combat brigades that would rotate out of Iraq in September without being replaced, according to the plan in the Times. Combat brigades, which generally have about 3,500 troops, do not make up the bulk of the 127,000-member American force in Iraq.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said any reduction in forces would depend on conditions in Iraq and be made in consultation with the Iraqi government.
"Based on ongoing assessments of the conditions on the ground, force levels could go up or down over time in order to meet the evolving requirements for the mission in Iraq," he told The Associated Press.
"Everything is contingent on the Iraqi government maintaining viability, and the security forces continuing to improve their credibility with us, that is, getting out there and doing the jobs we are now doing," CBS News analyst Mitch Mitchell, a retired colonel said on the CBS News' The Early Show.
The seven insurgent organizations who approached the government are mostly made up of former members or backers of Saddam Hussein's government, military or security agencies, and were motivated in part by fear of undue Iranian influence in the country, lawmakers said.
If confirmed, their offer would mark an important potential shift and could stand as evidence of a growing divide between Iraq's homegrown Sunni insurgency and the more brutal and ideological fighters of al-Qaida in Iraq, who are believed to be mainly non-Iraqi Islamic militants.
One of the seven groups, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, operates primarily in Anbar province. The organization claims it has conducted operations only against U.S. forces. They and other insurgents were said to have protected polling places in Anbar province during December parliamentary voting.
Another group, the Mohammed Army, is made up of former members of Saddam's Baath party, members of his elite Republican Guards and former military commanders. It, too, has focused attacks on the U.S. military and played a role in the November 2004 battle for Fallujah.
"The groups have said they are ready to lay down their arms, but they have some conditions. The al-Maliki initiative could help them to enter the political process," Othman said. He would not detail the insurgents' conditions.
A meaningful truce with insurgents would make it much easier for the United States to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al Maliki announced plans Sunday for security forces to take control of the country, though without a deadline. That was part of a 24-point national reconciliation plan which would offer amnesty to Iraqi insurgents who renounce violence, Assuras reports.
"To those who want to rebuild our country, we present an olive branch," al-Maliki told applauding lawmakers. "And to those who insist on killing and terrorism, we present a fist with the power of law to protect our country and people."
The much-anticipated plan lacked important details, but issued specific instructions to Iraqi security forces to rapidly take control of the country so U.S. and other foreign troops can leave eventually. It did not include a deadline for their withdrawal.