Rumsfeld: Bush to cut back U.S. troops in Iraq
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speaks to reporters as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad listens.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- President Bush has authorized a reduction in U.S. combat troops in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday, talking before troops at Camp Falluja, Iraq.
"At the recommendation of our military commanders and in consultation with our coalition partners and with the Iraqi government, President Bush has authorized an adjustment in U.S. combat brigades in Iraq from 17 to 15," Rumsfeld told 400 to 500 U.S. troops.
The adjustments will reduce forces in Iraq below the base-line level of 138,000 -- which has provided the guideline for most of the year -- by spring 2006. There were 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as elections approached, Rumsfeld said.
A statement issued by the U.S. military said one brigade -- the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division -- would not be deployed to Iraq, and a second brigade scheduled to deploy to Iraq -- the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division -- would remain in Kuwait as a "call forward" force for support if necessary.
About 3,500 soldiers are in each brigade, the statement said.
U.S. officials praise Iraqi forces
Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, indicated there could be another recommendation for an additional drawdown in the spring.
Casey and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, issued a joint statement praising the current move.
"This adjustment is an indication of the remarkable progress Iraq is making," the statement said. "It clearly demonstrates the dramatic increase in capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. This move would not have been possible without the dedication, bravery and sacrifice of your Iraqi security forces."
The Iraqi forces, which now surpass 200,000 -- "continue to grow, improve and conduct more and more independent operations each day," the statement said.
Rumsfeld flew into Iraq from Afghanistan on Thursday, and Casey met him at Baghdad International Airport.
Rumsfeld then went on to Amman, Jordan, before returning to Baghdad.
Election fraud allegations probed
Iraqi and U.N. electoral officials are examining allegations of fraud in the December 15 parliamentary elections, a U.S. diplomat said Friday.
Meanwhile, Sunni Arab demonstrators turned out in Baghdad to protest electoral problems. News footage showed chanting demonstrators holding banners and posters of the Iraq Accord Front, the top Sunni Arab political coalition. Protesters also took to the streets of Tikrit, Ramadi, Mosul and Samarra, said a spokesman for the Sunni bloc.
Robert Ford, a political adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq and a U.N. team of advisers are looking into the election complaints.
"It is important that the elections are considered credible by all political parties in Iraq; therefore, we must take the proper steps," Ford said.
Electoral problems prompted secular Shiite and Sunni Arab groups on Thursday to protest the latest partial results in which the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance has a commanding lead.
The United Iraqi Alliance is the most powerful party in the transitional government's ruling coalition.
The groups are talking about conducting protests and even boycotting the new parliament, the Council of Representatives, if complaints of fraud are not properly addressed.
Ford said the investigation would delay announcing results but added that "it's more important that the results be credible."
U.S. officials are hopeful that a new government will foster Shiite-Sunni harmony, which has been elusive during the insurgency.
But representatives from Sunni, Kurdish and secular Shiite groups on Thursday rejected the preliminary results, claiming fraud.
Their umbrella group, called Maram, is calling for new elections. The group wants the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq -- which oversaw last week's vote -- to be disbanded and an alternative set up.
If that isn't done, Maram plans to call for nationwide peaceful demonstrations. Reports indicate a boycott of the new Council of Representatives could be in the works.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said citizens and groups have a right to raise complaints, and those concerns must be reviewed in the legally mandated process that the electoral panel is using.
CNN's Arwa Damon and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.
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