General: U.S. could start Iraq pullout in spring
Depends on political, security progress, commander says
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Wednesday that the U.S. military could begin a substantial troop pullout as early as next spring.
Gen. George Casey, who spoke to reporters during Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's unannounced trip to Iraq, said some conditions would have to be met for the withdrawal to take place.
"I do believe that if the political process continues to go positively and if the development of the security forces continues to go as it is going, I do believe we'll still be able to take some very substantial reductions after these elections in the spring and summer of next year."
Elections in Iraq are scheduled for the end of this year.
Casey said he could not say how many of the approximately 135,000 American troops would be withdrawn.
At the same time, transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who met with Rumsfeld, said it was time for a coordinated plan to transition from the American to the Iraqi military and urged that it be done in a speedy fashion.
Casey said there was no agreement on how many insurgents are battling coalition forces.
"The level of attacks they've been able to generate has not increased substantially here over what we've seen in the last year," Casey said. "This insurgency is not progressing."
Referring to the large-scale attacks mounted in recent weeks and months, Casey said "what you are seeing is a change in tactics to more violent, more visible attacks against civilians and that is a no-win strategy for the insurgency."
Last week, national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie told CNN that he'd be "very surprised if the coalition forces will not start pulling out by middle of next year."
Rubaie said he believed the withdrawing coalition forces would be "in sizable numbers."
Rumsfeld said Iraq needs to be more aggressive in its stance against interference from neighbors such as Syria and Iran, and the borders with those countries should be closed to stem the flow of insurgents into Iraq.
"They need to be aggressively communicating with their neighbors to see that foreign terrorists stop coming across those borders and that their neighbors do not harbor insurgents and finance insurgents in a way that is destructive of what the Iraqi people are trying to accomplish," Rumsfeld said.
Rumsfeld's comments echo those of Iraq's defense minister who criticized Syria on Tuesday for ignoring Iraqi demands "to stop the infiltration of terrorists."
Rumsfeld also encouraged the Iraqi constitution committee to meet its August 15 deadline to come up with a draft of the country's constitution. If the draft is approved by the transitional National Assembly, it will be put before voters in an October 15 referendum.
Rumsfeld's visit coincides with polls that cite declining support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq and a lack of confidence in the United States' ability to help establish a permanent Iraqi government and train Iraqi security forces to defend the country without coalition support.
According to a recent CNN poll, 60 percent of Americans say they don't believe the United States will be able to establish a permanent government in Iraq. In addition, a Pentagon report issued last week said 171,000 Iraqi security forces are now trained and equipped but that only 2,500 are capable of mounting counter-insurgency operations on their own without Coalition Forces help.
Algeria says 2 diplomats killed
The Algeria government Wednesday said that its two diplomats abducted last week in Iraq were killed by their kidnappers.
Algerian charge d' affaires, Ali Belarouci, and colleague Azzedine Belkadi were seized Thursday in Baghdad's Mansour neighborhood, which is home to a number of Arab embassies.
An Internet statement posted Wednesday said the group al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic militant group led by terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had killed the diplomats.
The office of Algeria's president said the men "are considered martyrs because they were killed while they were serving their country as diplomats."
Threats to kill the men were posted Tuesday on several Web sites.
CNN's Aneesh Raman, Enes Dulami, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Cal Perry contributed to this report.
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