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General says troops in Iraq 'stretched'
Updated: 2006-01-27 08:41

Also Thursday, the military released five Iraqi women detainees, a move demanded by the kidnappers of American reporter Jill Carroll. Officials said the women were part of a group of about 420 Iraqis to be released Thursday and Friday and that their freedom was not connected to efforts to free Carroll, who was seized in Baghdad on Jan. 7.

However, Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal said intensive efforts were under way to release Carroll, a freelancer for the Christian Science Monitor, and "God willing, that she will be released."

Casey spoke after attending a ceremony in which Polish troops transferred leadership of the south-central region of Iraq to Iraqi forces, the first such large-scale handover since the conflict began in 2003.

The transfer of authority for the sector, which includes about 25 percent of the country, was part of a larger strategy by the U.S.-led coalition to build up Iraqi forces and give them greater role in security — a move that could enable American and other international troops to draw down.

In a study for the Pentagon, Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to crush the insurgency. He also suggested that the Pentagon's decision, announced in December, to begin reducing the force in Iraq this year was driven in part by a realization that the Army was overextended.

US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disputed reports that the military was overextended, suggesting Wednesday that talk of an overburdened force was "either out of date or just misdirected."

Pentagon officials announced this week that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has been cut to about 136,000 — their lowest level since last summer. Two years ago the U.S. force dropped to about 110,000 but was boosted after insurgent violence spiked.

Last month, Casey said he expects the troop levels to be brought to about 130,000 by the beginning of March and that more cuts could be made later in the year if conditions permit and more Iraqi soldiers finish their training.

On Thursday, Casey rejected the idea that personnel strains within the military would determine the pace of troop reductions in Iraq.

"That's not true, and the recommendation to begin the reduction of forces came from me based on our strategy here in Iraq," he said. "I made my decision based on operational reasons, and I'll continue to do that. As I've said all along I will ask for what I need to accomplish this mission."

U.S. officials believe the key to defusing the insurgency is a broad-based government that can win the trust of the Sunni Arab community. Talks are under way among Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians to form such a government following the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, in which Shiites won the biggest number of seats but Sunnis expanded their representation in the legislature.

On Thursday, Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi said the Shiite bloc will decide on its nominee for prime minister in the next few days. Since the Shiites won the most seats, the law gives them first crack at the prime minister's post subject to parliamentary approval.

Abdul-Mahdi is among four Shiites mentioned as possible prime ministers. The others are incumbent Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari; nuclear physicist Hussain al-Shahrastani; and Nadim al-Jabiri of the Fadhila party, a religious group whose spiritual leader is radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's late father.

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