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Ten Iraqi soldiers killed in strongpoint attack; Rumsfeld announces further US troop withdrawal from Iraq - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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British Prime Minister Tony Blair sits in a Merlin Helicopter during his visit to the Shaibah Logistic Base in Iraq December 22, 2005 (REUTERS)

British Prime Minister Tony Blair sits in a Merlin Helicopter during his visit to the Shaibah Logistic Base in Iraq December 22, 2005 (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD,(Agencies) – Ten Iraqi soldiers were killed and 20 wounded when gunmen stormed a small army base in a restive area north of Baghdad on Friday, police said.

The attack near Adhaim, on the main road between Baghdad and the flashpoint northern city of Kirkuk, was the bloodiest since last week””s parliamentary election and lasted much of the morning, said a senior police officer in the area, some 70 km (45 miles) north of the capital.

It occurred while U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was paying a pre-Christmas visit to the subdued Sunni Arab rebel stronghold of Falluja and told U.S. soldiers he was reducing the number of troops in the country slightly in recognition of the improved capabilities of the new, U.S.-trained Iraqi forces.

The Adhaim attackers, in large numbers, opened fire on the outlying strongpoint with heavy machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades and then turned on reinforcements who arrived to help, said the police officer, who asked not to be named.

The fortified compound lies north of the town on the main road to Kirkuk, where Arabs and Kurds are at daggers drawn over control of Iraq””s big northern oilfields.

Simultaneously, shortly after dawn, mortar bombs fell on the main base in the Adhaim area some 10 km (six miles) away, where some U.S. troops are also stationed, the police said. U.S. military officials had no immediate information on that attack.

In early December, 11 Iraqi soldiers were killed when guerrillas ambushed a joint patrol with U.S. troops near Adhaim.

Iraq had been enjoying a period of relative calm over the past 10 days, partly as a result of increased security measures during the election and partly, it seems, because of an informal truce among Sunni Arab insurgents.

The area around Adhaim has seen previous attacks credited to Islamist militants linked to the group al Qaeda in Iraq, including mass infantry assaults on Iraqi army and police posts.

Unlike some secular Sunni Arab insurgents, whose informal truce helped promote a big Sunni turnout in last Thursday””””””””s vote, al Qaeda remains violently opposed to the U.S.-backed political process that has empowered the Shi””ite majority.

Some Sunni Arab leaders have warned that rebel groups could resume violence because of disappointment with election results they say were fraudulent.

The vulnerability of the new U.S.-trained Iraqi forces, seen by rebels as tools of U.S. occupation and the American-backed, Shi””ite- and Kurdish-led government, worries Washington, whose plans to cut its own troop numbers depend on Iraqis taking over.

While most militant attacks are conducted by small groups, often using remote-controlled, buried explosives, all-out frontal assaults, using dozens of gunmen displaying infantry training, have been launched occasionally in the past two years.

Elsewhere, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has announced the United States is to withdraw two combat brigades, totaling between 5,000 and 9,000 soldiers, from Iraq by next spring.

That would bring the number of US troops under the level of 138,000 for the first time since April 2004, a year after US-led forces first invaded the country.

&#34President (George) Bush has authorized an adjustment in US combat brigades in Iraq from 17 to 15,&#34 Rumsfeld said.

His remarks came just a day after British Prime Minister Tony Blair raised the prospects of beginning a British troop pulldown next year.

Blair, who was also on a suprise visit to troops ahead of Christmas, remarked that he was pleased to learn of their high regard for Iraqi forces.

&#34This is a very hopeful sign because obviously the whole purpose is to build up the capability of the armed forces and the police so we can then draw down our own forces,&#34 Blair said.

&#34This is the whole purpose of the strategy. Political process can only be buttressed by a strong security aspect to it.&#34

The prime minister refused to be drawn on a timetable, but Friday””””s first edition of British tabloid The Sun said the process would begin in May. London””””s The Times claimed 1,000 troops had already been pulled back from frontline duties as the first stage of withdrawal.

Rumsfeld, addressing US soldiers on an unannounced visit to this Sunni bastion 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, said &#34the adjustments being announced are the recognition of the Iraqi people””””s progress in assuming added responsibility for their country.&#34

The United States has maintained that it would reduce its military presence in Iraq in line with the build-up of Iraq””””s newly formed security forces.

Washington had already announced the withdrawal of reinforcements sent to Iraq to ensure that the October 15 referendum on the constitution and the December 15 general elections went off smoothly.

&#34The effect of these adjustments will reduce forces in Iraq by the spring 2006 below the current level of 160,000 during the elections period and below the 138,000 baseline that existed prior to the most recent elections,&#34 Rumsfeld said.

The defense secretary also alluded to further reductions during the course of the year.

&#34We anticipate future coalition force-level discussions at some point in 2006, after the new Iraqi government is in place and is prepared to discuss the future,&#34 he added.

A new government is expected to be installed early next year in the wake of the general elections whose final results are not yet known.

&#34Let me be very clear: The challenges ahead, military, political, economic, will not be easy. The United States as all you know did not come to Iraq for oil, not to occupy. We came here only to help,&#34 Rumsfeld also said.

Speaking of Fallujah, Rumsfeld praised progress made there, saying it has &#34some of the highest voter registration and turn-out rates in the country and has increasingly capable and confident Iraqi security forces in the streets helping to maintain order and to hunt down terrorists&#34.

The defense secretary flew in to Iraq from Afghanistan to visit US troops ahead of the Christmas holiday.

Rumsfeld was also expected to meet with with Iraqi leaders on Friday to discuss the ongoing political process and the formation of a new government.

&#34Our interest, as a country, is that the process produces a set of people that are going to pull that country together towards the center and not pull it apart,&#34 Rumsfeld said Thursday.

Such people should be &#34competent and capable of leading a government,&#34 he said.

&#34It would be desirable if it happened over a short period of time rather than a long period of time but what””””s more important is that it be done well,&#34 the defense secretary said.

&#34We also can””””t ignore that the world, the rest of the world, has a vote. This country needs the support of the United Nations, it needs he support of the international community, it needs the support of the coalition countries.&#34

The likely difficulty of forming a new government was highlighted on Thursday, when 35 Iraqi political groups, including secular Shiites and Sunni Arabs, rejected early election results.

Threatening to boycott the new parliament, they pressed for a probe into &#34violations and irregularities that have marred the electoral process.&#34

Early results suggest that religious Shiite parties will have a large majority.

Rumsfeld also expected that time was needed to crush the insurgency in Iraq.

&#34The defeat of the people opposed to that government will be something that will take some time,&#34 he said.

Speaking to around 200 US soldiers at Camp Victory shortly after his arrival and following meetings with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and US force commander General George Casey, Rumsfeld praised the forces for their contributions.

&#34The economic progress that has taken place in this country has moved forward as well and certainly the military progress is impressive,&#34 he said.

Meanwhile, the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven cohorts for the murder of Iraqi villagers in 1982, after an assassination attempt on the then dictator, was adjourned Friday until January 24.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (L) walks with General George Casey, U.S. Commander in Iraq, after arriving by cargo plane in Baghdad, Iraq December 22, 2005 (REUTERS)

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (L) walks with General George Casey, U.S. Commander in Iraq, after arriving by cargo plane in Baghdad, Iraq December 22, 2005 (REUTERS)

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein looks at prosecutors as he speaks at his trial in Baghdad December 22, 2005 (REUTERS)

Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein looks at prosecutors as he speaks at his trial in Baghdad December 22, 2005 (REUTERS)

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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