Gates says U.S. may accelerate Iraq withdrawal
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that the United States might accelerate the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq even as fresh...
The New York Times
Lowest month for deathsAn Associated Press tally shows seven U.S. troop deaths this month, the lowest monthly total so far for the Iraq war since it started in 2003. The United States has about 130,000 forces in Iraq, with current plans calling for most combat forces — or more than 100,000 troops — to remain in the country until after Iraqi national elections in January.
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that the United States might accelerate the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq even as fresh tension there underscored worries about instability after the American troops are gone.
Speaking with reporters after his latest visit to Baghdad, Gates said another brigade of about 5,000 troops could leave by the end of December on top of the two brigades, or 10,000 troops, now scheduled to pull out this year. That would still leave the bulk of American forces in Iraq until after January's elections.
The upbeat assessment came as flash points around Iraq offered cautionary notes about the country's progress toward self-sustained security. While Gates met with his commanders, Iraqi forces made a surprise raid on a camp of Iranian exiles previously under American protection.
A dispute between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders is intensifying and the Shiite-led government has been arresting several Sunni militia leaders allied with the United States.
Gates and other administration officials said such issues need to be addressed but did not cause them to rethink their current timetable for drawing down American forces.
Instead, they expressed confidence that the month-old pullback from Iraqi cities had gone "better than expected," as Gates put it, and indicated that, if anything, the American disengagement could proceed somewhat faster.
"I don't think there's anything in the cards for a slowdown," Gates said during a stop in Turkey on Wednesday, a day after he had dinner in Baghdad with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq.
"I think there's at least some chance of a modest acceleration because of the way Gen. Odierno sees things going. But that remains to be seen."
Gates cautioned that it was still early and that an accelerated troop drawdown "may or may not" occur.
About 130,000 American troops remain in Iraq; most will stay to provide security through Iraqi elections in January.
From March through August 2010, the Obama administration plan calls for a steep drawdown of some 80,000 troops, so that by the end of next summer only a residual force of 30,000 to 50,000 would still be in place until they too withdraw by the end of 2011.
Gates arrived in Turkey on Wednesday from Irbil, Iraq, where he met with Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan, in hopes of defusing an escalating dispute with the central government.
Kurdish leaders have moved forward with a new constitution that claims territory and oil and gas rights rejected by Baghdad. The differences were supposed to be settled in talks sponsored by the United Nations beginning in June, but the Kurdish Parliament passed the constitution anyway.
Gates' visit came as the Kurdistan regional government announced that Barzani had been re-elected in local polling, with the coalition of his Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan winning 57 percent of the parliamentary vote. A coalition called Gorran won 24 percent.
Gates said he told Barzani that Kurdish leaders should take advantage of the Americans' remaining time in Iraq and negotiate a settlement.
2 hostages dead
The British government announced Wednesday that two more British hostages in Iraq were believed to have been killed by their captors, leaving just one of five men kidnapped together in 2007 still unaccounted for, but thought to be alive.
The announcement cast fresh doubts on a controversial plan that sought to win the hostages' freedom with the staged release of Shiite insurgent leaders from American custody.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on vacation in Scotland, issued a statement saying it was "very likely" that the two hostages, Alan McMenemy and Alec MacLachlan, were dead, and urging the release of another hostage, Peter Moore, "whom we still believe to be alive."
The bodies of two other hostages, Jason Swindlehurst and Jason Creswell, were handed over to the British Embassy in Baghdad last month.
Officials at the Foreign Office said it appeared that the four had been shot dead at the same time, with the bodies of McMenemy and MacLachlan held back by the captors.
That appeared to suggest that the Shiite militants holding the Britons had killed them while they were negotiating a deal to exchange them for 10 members of the group that carried out the kidnappings.
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