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White House Downplays Troop Withdrawal

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.

"I would caution very strongly against everybody thinking, `Well, they're going to pull two brigades out,'" White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

"Maybe they will, maybe they won't," he said. "It really does depend upon a whole series of things that we cannot at this juncture predict. I would characterize this more in terms of scenario building and we'll see how it proceeds."

Snow confirmed that Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top military commander in Iraq, met with President Bush on Friday.

Snow refused to disclose what Casey told Mr. Bush but said the general has "a number of scenarios in mind for differing situations on the ground." He said planning would change based on conditions on the ground.

"But I'm certainly not going to announce in advance anything that he may have in mind for the president or that he may be recommending," Snow said. "Just don't do that in a time of war."

The New York Times on Sunday first reported the news of a possible plan to withdraw some U.S. troops from Iraq. According to that report, brigades would not be replaced numerically and their duties would be assumed by U.S. forces from elsewhere in Iraq, CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras reports. 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.

In other recent developments:

  • Gunmen attacked a convoy assigned to Iraq's most senior Sunni Arab politician Monday, killing one bodyguard, police said. Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Iraq Accordance Front, was not in any of the vehicles. It was the second such incident involving an al-Dulaimi convoy, the last occurred in March.
  • The Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday confirmed the death of several employees of its embassy in Iraq. The confirmation, in a statement, came a day after the al-Qaida-linked Mujahedeen Shura Council said that it had killed the four men, who were seized this month. The group posted a video showing the killing of three men on a Web site that has been used to broadcast militant messages.
  • Japan will send about 100 more troops to southern Iraq to help its military pack up and leave the country, ending its most dangerous overseas mission since World War II, the Defense Agency said Monday. The withdrawal began Sunday with a Japanese military contingent crossed the border from southern Iraq into Kuwait.
  • Seventeen American service members have been killed or found dead in Iraq since Tuesday. The military said a soldier from the Third Heavy Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division, was killed in a roadside bombing south of Baqouba on Saturday. Since the Iraq war began in March, 2003, The Associated Press has counted at least two-thousand-522 deaths among members of the military.
  • Democrats blamed the Bush administration's Iraq policy for turning U.S. soldiers into targets for Iraq's insurgency. In the party's weekly radio address, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean said the Republican plan to "stay the course" is not an option. Dean repeated the Democratic call for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces, but he rejected Republican criticism that Democrats want to "cut and run."
  • The U.S. military said it has filed charges against two Pennsylvania National Guardsmen in the February killing of a civilian near the Iraqi city of Ramadi. The troops are accuses of killing the man and then trying to cover it up.
  • Explosions killed eight people in Baghdad on Sunday, six of them when a parcel blew up in a central market and two when a bomb went off in a minibus in the east of the capital, police said. At least 22 people were wounded.

    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 New York 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.

    But while two brigades of Iraqi Army soldiers have recently been introduced to central Anbar province, the U.S. commander of the area said last week that Americans would remain in charge for the foreseeable future. More than 5,000 U.S. forces are based in the area.

    "I don't think by this winter we'll be quite ready to turn over completely" to Iraqi forces, said Army Col. Sean MacFarland, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division that oversees Ramadi and a stretch of farmland leading eastward for about 30 miles.

    The central section of Anbar province, which contains the troubled provincial capital of Ramadi, is a haven for the Sunni-led insurgency. Much of Ramadi, Iraq's largest Sunni Arab city with a population of 400,000, has gone unpatrolled by U.S. forces in recent months.

    MacFarland's comments were echoed in an interview published Monday in The New York Times with Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who oversees Marines in the Middle East and Central Asia.

    "I see no reductions in American forces in Anbar into next year, at least through next summer, because of the restiveness there," Sattler was quoted as saying.

    "Anbar is going to be one of the last provinces to be stabilized," Sattler told the Times.

    Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al Maliki also announced plans 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.

    Al-Maliki unveiled his 24-point national reconciliation initiative on Sunday, offering amnesty to insurgents who renounce violence and have not committed terror attacks, reported CBS News correspondent Lee Cowan.

    "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.
    Responding to the al-Maliki's plan, a key Shiite legislator said Monday that seven Sunni Arab insurgent groups have contacted the government to declare their readiness to join in efforts at national reconciliation, a key Shiite legislator said on Monday.

    The seven lesser groups, most of them believed populated by former members or backers of Saddam Hussein's government, military or security agencies, have said they want a truce, Hassan al-Suneid, a lawmaker and member of the political bureau of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party, told The Associated Press.

    The contact by the insurgent organizations, which could not be independently verified, would mark an important potential shift and stand as evidence of a growing divide between Iraqi insurgents and the more brutal and ideological fighters of al Qaeda in Iraq, who are believed to mainly be non-Iraqi Islamic militants.

    Al-Maliki was considering a possible meeting with leaders of the groups or contacts through intermediaries, al-Suneid said.

    He identified only six of the seven organizations by name, listing them as: al-Ashreen Brigades, the Mohammed Army, Abtal al-Iraq (Heroes of Iraq), the 9th of April Group, al-Fatah Brigades, the Brigades of the General Command of the Armed Forces.

    The al-Ashreen Brigades operate primarily in Anbar province, the violent insurgent stronghold in the desert west of Baghdad. The organization claims its operations have only been conducted against U.S. forces. They and other insurgents were said to have protected polling places against attacks by other insurgent groups in Anbar province during December parliamentary voting.

    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.

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