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General says US forces 'stretched' but capable

DIWANIYAH, Iraq -- The top US commander in Iraq acknowledged yesterday that the US Army was stretched, but insisted that forces here were capable of accomplishing their mission and that any recommendation to reduce troops further would be dictated by the situation on the battlefield.

US officials said General George Casey was speaking about the Army in general, and not specifically about the 136,000-strong force in Iraq; however, his comments are likely to fuel a debate in the US government over whether the United States can sustain the fight long enough to break the back of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.

''The forces are stretched . . . and I don't think there's any question of that," Casey told reporters. ''But the Army has been for the last several years going through a modernization strategy that will produce more units and more ready units."

Casey said that he had discussed manpower strains with General Peter J. Schoomaker on Wednesday and that the Army chief of staff is confident that he can sustain missions around the world. Casey was adamant that the troops in Iraq were getting the job done. ''So, yep, folks are stretched here but they certainly accomplish their mission, and the forces that you've seen on the ground are absolutely magnificent," Casey added.

In Washington, President Bush brushed aside talk that the United States could not prevail in Iraq. ''If the question is whether or not we can win victory in Iraq, our commanders will have the troops necessary to do that," Bush told reporters.

Meanwhile, the US command announced that two American soldiers died Wednesday -- one in a bombing south of Baghdad, the other of wounds suffered in a rocket attack in Ramadi. At least 2,238 members of the US military have died since the war began, according to an Associated Press count.

At least 11 Iraqis were killed yesterday in attacks around the country, police said.

Pentagon officials announced this week that the number of US troops in Iraq has been cut to about 136,000.

Casey yesterday rejected the idea that personnel strains within the military would determine the pace of troop reductions. ''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.

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