BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Foreign troop levels in Iraq could drop to less than 100,000 by the end of 2008 if Iraq’s own forces were ready and security threats had diminished, Iraq’s national security adviser said on Wednesday.
Mowaffaq al-Rubaie was speaking after two days of testimony in Washington by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who has recommended cutting U.S. forces by about 30,000 by next July because of reduced violence in Iraq.
That would bring U.S. troop numbers down to around 130,000, roughly the level before an increase ordered by U.S. President George W. Bush early this year.
“Maybe it is not far from the truth if we said that by the end of next year, multinational forces could be less than 100,000,” Rubaie told a news conference.
“This all depends on the security circumstances and the level of the threat, whether from inside the country or in the region. This also depends on the level of training of the Iraqi forces.”
He did not talk specifically about U.S. troop numbers — currently at 168,000 — but the overwhelming majority of foreign soldiers in Iraq are American.
U.S. force reductions would continue after next summer, Petraeus said on Monday, although it would be premature to make recommendations now on the pace of such cuts. Such an assessment could be made by March 2008, he said.
Rubaie offered no objections to Petraeus’ proposed reductions but did not explicitly endorse the plan. He stressed that much depended on how security trends developed.
Both the Iraqi and U.S. governments have highlighted the fall in violence under Bush’s so-called surge of troops.
On Tuesday, Rubaie said all Iraqi army units would be trained and equipped by mid-2008. More than 80 percent of Iraq’s army had the capability to take the lead in combat operations, he said, putting total Iraqi security forces at 500,000.
Democrats and Bush’s Republicans grilled Petraeus on Tuesday in Washington on whether security gains were significant enough to keep U.S. troops in the war zone.
Petraeus insisted progress was being made under Bush’s strategy of temporarily building up troops to allow time for Iraqi lawmakers to achieve political reconciliation.
Critics of the war have assailed Iraq’s leaders for failing to pass laws regarded as vital for healing deep divisions between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
Bush will endorse Petraeus’ recommendation for a troop drawdown when he gives a 20-minute speech on Iraq on Thursday, The Washington Post reported, citing unidentified White House aides.
Some Iraqis have welcomed the idea of a U.S. troop reduction and have called for a total withdrawal.
Many others fret that their own security forces would not be ready to take over and that a drawdown in U.S. troops would be an invitation for Shi’ite militias, Sunni Arab insurgents and al Qaeda fighters to step up attacks once they were gone.