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Projections on troop levels leave room for hedging

WASHINGTON -- The top US commander in Iraq predicted yesterday that the size of the American fighting force will shrink this year, although he said he had not made new recommendations to his Pentagon bosses on the size and timing of any cuts.

``I'm confident that we'll be able to continue to take reductions over the course of this year," Army General George W. Casey Jr. said at a Pentagon news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at his side.

Rumsfeld said that Casey had not had sufficient time to consult with the new Iraqi government, but that in any case, the size of the US force is likely to rise and fall in coming months, depending on political and security conditions.

``It will very likely not be a steady path down," Rumsfeld said. ``It could very likely be a drawdown with an increase."

Casey, who said more than once last year that he expected to see ``fairly substantial" US troop reductions during the spring and summer of 2006, pointed out that the force has dropped from about 138,000 in March to 126,900 now.

``Whether that's `fairly substantial' enough, I'll leave to your judgment," he said. ``As I said, I think there will be continued gradual reductions here as the Iraqis take on a larger and larger role."

Casey also said members of the Sunni insurgency have been reaching out to the new Iraqi government, giving US military commanders opportunities to forge communications with the resistance groups.

The general said the US military and the Iraqi government ``have several different strands of contacts going on, and there are opportunities in that regard we just haven't had before." He did not elaborate. He also said that the insurgency has grown more complex in recent months and that it has been assisted by Iranian special operations forces who provide bomb materials, weapons, and training to Shi'ite extremists in southern Iraq.

``They are using surrogates to conduct terrorist operations in Iraq both against us and against the Iraqi people," Casey said. ``It's decidedly unhelpful." He added that the problem has grown since January.

The Republican-controlled Senate yesterday soundly rejected two Democratic attempts to urge the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, including an amendment to begin pulling out by the end of the year. GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of wanting to abandon Iraq before the mission is complete, while Democrats said it is time for changes in President Bush's Iraq strategy.

Asked about the wisdom of setting a fixed date for the start of a US troop withdrawal, Casey said he opposed that approach.

``I feel it would limit my flexibility," he said. ``I think it would give the enemy a fixed timetable. And I think it would send a terrible signal to a new government of national unity in Iraq that's trying to stand up and get its legs underneath it."

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