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5,000 US Troops Have Gone AWOL

Getting Out of Iraq…One Way or Another

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Donald Rumsfeld intends to cut the number of US troops in Iraq

The United States military says it is hoping to make a substantial reduction in its forces in Iraq, beginning next spring and summer. General George Casey, the senior US commander in Iraq, said that if political developments continued positively and Iraqi security forces became stronger then there could be sharp cuts in his 135,000-strong force.

The announcement will signal in Iraq that American desire to stay in the country is weakening. The latest opinion poll in the US shows that 53 per cent believe the US will not win in Iraq.

At a briefing with Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, in Baghdad, General Casey said troop reductions would come after the Iraqi elections at the end of the year.

Many Iraqi officials are sceptical about US claims that an effective Iraqi army and police force is being rapidly trained by the US. They said insurgents are capable of taking over Sunni Arab districts almost at will.

The US remains very much in charge of security in Iraq despite the nominal authority of the Defence and Interior Ministries. No military action happens except on American command. A US plan to cut the number of foreign troops in Iraq to 66,000 by mid-2006 was outlined in a British Government document leaked in the US this month.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said at a joint press conference with Mr Rumsfeld that the Americans should leave as soon as Iraqis are ready. He said: "The great desire of the Iraqi people is to see the coalition forces on their way as soon as [the new Iraqi security forces] take more responsibility." He added that there should be no surprise pull-out.

Ordinary Iraqis in Baghdad ascribe their problems to the US military presence and say nothing would happen if they pulled out. The tendency of US soldiers to treat all Iraqis as potential suicide bombers has led to frequent shootings of innocent Iraqi.

The police general in charge of the serious crime squad was shot in the head by US soldiers. Iraqis also blame the US presence for the lack of personal security, notably the frequent kidnappings and robberies. But, given the weakness of the Iraqi security forces, a rapid US departure might lead to a disintegration of government authority in much of the country. Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament, thinks the real figure for the numbers of men in the Iraqi security forces is 40,000, not 150,000 as claimed.

The US has always had an ambivalent attitude to rebuilding the Iraqi armed forces. It has wanted them strong when facing the insurgents but has been slow to arm them with effective weapons. Iraqi officials say that "at the end of the day the Americans do not trust us".

Al-Qa’ida in Iraq has said it has killed two kidnapped Algerian envoys because of their government’s support for the United States. The statement on a website often used by the group led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi read: "It [Algeria] had sent these two apostates as allies to the Jews and Christians in Iraq. Haven’t we warned you against allying yourselves with America?"

Algerian radio interrupted its programming to broadcast an announcement from the office of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which said that Ali Belaroussi and Azzedine Belkadi had been executed.

The US military has divided Iraq into six major Areas of Responsibility (AORs) maintained by multinational forces from 26 countries. The US 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment from Fort Irwin, California, leads the Baghdad mission, while the US 42nd Infantry Division from New York State covers Kirkuk, Tikrit and Samarra.

Since the invasion began, 1,785 American soldiers have died in Iraq, 348 of them since the 31 January elections. About 5,500 US troops have gone absent without leave since the beginning of operations in 2003.

At least 23 members of a California National Guard battalion serving in Iraq are under investigation for the alleged abuse of Iraqi detainees and for a $30,000 extortion scheme involving promises to protect shopkeepers from insurgents, the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday.

PATRICK COCKBURN was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting in recognition of his writing on Iraq over the past year. His new memoir, The Broken Boy, has just been published in the UK.