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Troop cuts in Iraq may wait, Bush says

WASHINGTON -- The United States may not be able to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq as planned next year, even though significant progress is being made in stabilizing the chaotic nation, President Bush has reported to Congress.

The status report indicated that large numbers of American troops could remain in Iraq for years. However, it also pointed to progress being made in rebuilding Iraq, including infrastructure, health care, education, and the recruitment of Iraqi security forces.

US commanders have said they hope to reduce the American military presence from 130,000 troops to 100,000 troops by July, when political authority will be handed over to an interim Iraqi government. But, the White House acknowledged, those goals may not be realistic given the enormous challenges ahead for US and coalition forces.

"It is not possible to know at this time either the duration of the military operations or the scope and duration of the deployment of United States armed forces necessary for the full accomplishment of our goals," the White House said in the 16-page report, obtained by the Globe.

The report, which was delivered last week, is required every two months by the congressional resolution approved in the fall of 2002 empowering the president to use military force in Iraq. While the report said much progress has been made in the eight months since US and British forces toppled Saddam Hussein's government, it also made clear that establishing a democratic society will be much more difficult than the United States predicted before the war.

Critical services have been restored and reforms instituted, according to the report. Street crime is decreasing. A more forceful antiguerrilla campaign is slowly succeeding.

Yet serious challenges remain, particularly in bringing security to the ethnically and religiously diverse country, according to the report, which was completed before the Dec. 13 capture of Saddam Hussein. While US and coalition forces are steadily unraveling the violent resistance forces, the report said, the insurgents are using more sophisticated tactics. They are targeting a growing number of Iraqis assisting the coalition and expanding their attacks outside the heartland of the former regime.

Bush administration officials have been critical of some of the media coverage of the Iraq operation -- during which more than 400 American soldiers have died, most of them after the initial fighting -- saying not enough emphasis has been given to what has gone right. The report emphasizes a number of positive developments.

The report points out that under a plan adopted by the US-appointed Governing Council in November, caucuses in 18 Iraqi provinces will select a Transitional National Assembly by July of next year. It will in turn write a constitution and select a temporary government that will take full governing responsibility. Councils or legislatures already govern the country's 18 provinces. Elections for a permament government are scheduled by the end of 2005.

Iraq's Ministry of Health has increased spending by a factor of 26 compared with before the war. Doctors' salaries are eight times higher. Pharmaceutical distribution and child vaccinations have increased dramatically, with 30 million doses of vaccine procured since July.

The US-led Coalition Authority has yet to return electric power to prewar levels -- in part because of sabatoge -- but "necessary long-term repairs and scheduled maintenance are being made at generating plants throughout the country to build a sustainable power grid," according to the report. Nearly 2,000 breaks in Baghdad's water supply have been repaired. Seventy of Baghdad's 90 nonfunctioning waste-water pumping stations have been rehabilitated.

To seek justice for the alleged crimes of Hussein's regime -- and establish modern civil and criminal justice systems -- the report cited two major accomplishments: the separation of the judiciary from the Ministry of Justice, ensuring an independent court system, and the establishment of an Iraq War Crimes Tribunal. While specialists say the tribunal is not a perfect solution, it is a good start that could be aided by international legal specialists.

Educational gains have also been made. Since October, more than 1,774 schools have been rebuilt; and school supplies, teacher kits, furniture, and textbooks are being delivered. Five grants worth more than $15 million have been awarded to US universities to form partnerships with Iraqi institutions.

Economic strides include putting into circulation 2.5 trillion new Iraqi dinars -- 57 percent of the goal, the report said. Eighty bank branches are now part of a new bank-to-bank payment system and 50,000 jobs, both public and private, have been created by the coalition-funded National Employment Program. Steps are underway to relieve or reschedule Iraq's international debts.

Perhaps the biggest achievement has been the establishment of a variety of new Iraqi security forces, which now total 159,892 personnel: 68,000 police, over 65,000 security guards, more than 12,000 border guards, 13,000 civil defense troops, and over 1,800 members of a new Iraqi Army. There are now as many Iraqi forces as there are coalition forces on duty in Iraq.

The recruitment effort has not been without its problems. Pentagon officials acknowledge that they haven't screened applicants sufficiently and some former regime loyalists may have been hired by the coalition, risking the possibility of spies within the US and coalition ranks.

Remaining security challenges have stunted progress in some areas, according to the report.

In October, sabotage led to a reduction in the refining of kerosene, diesel, and gasoline, the energy products that US officials predicted before the war would raise billions of dollars in Iraqi revenues to help pay for reconstruction. Over 800,000 refugees are not yet able to return to their homes, largely for security reasons. And the guerrilla resistance, estimated to number 5,000, is adapting to the stepped-up US and coalition counterinsurgency campaign.

Iraqis are coming forth in larger numbers to provide helpful information about insurgents, according to the report, but the challenge for the US-led counter-insurgency campaign and rebuilding efforts is to outpace the continuing threats to stability and keep public opinion on the Americans' side. "Security efforts are complicated by the fact that paramilitary groups comprised of hard-line Ba'athists and outside extremists seek to undermine public confidence through violence and by fomenting disorder," the report said.

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