Bush: Iraqi forces will take more control in 2006
President predicts U.S. force levels will drop
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush said Wednesday that U.S. efforts in Iraq are bearing fruit, and predicted that Iraqi forces will shoulder more of the responsibility this year and that U.S. force levels will drop.
"Those who want to stop the progress of freedom are becoming more and more marginalized," Bush told reporters at the Pentagon after meeting with members of his national security team, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"In January 2006, the mission is to continue to hand over more and more territory and more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces," said Bush, flanked by his top aides, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
A year ago, Bush said, "only a handful" of Iraqis were trained and equipped to fight the insurgent forces. "Today, 125 combat battalions are fighting the enemy, and 50 of those are in the lead," he said. "That's progress."
He added, "As we see more of these Iraqi forces in the lead, we will be able to continue with our stated strategy that says as Iraqi forces stand up, we will stand down."
The number of Iraqi forces capable of fighting alone has been unclear in the past. In September, Gens. John Abizaid and George Casey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that one Iraqi battalion was capable of conducting operations without U.S. support. That number represented a drop from June, when generals told Congress that three battalions were capable of operating independently. (See transcript)
Bush noted that U.S. commanders have recently determined that combat forces in Iraq can be reduced from 17 brigades to 15 brigades, and that U.S. troop strength can drop by 7,000 below the baseline level of 138,000.
This year, too, more U.S. forces will be tasked with training and supporting Iraqi units, helping them improve their logistics and intelligence capabilities, Bush said.
The efforts will extend beyond the military sector, with U.S. forces focusing on training Iraqi police, Bush said.
Bush described as "troubling" and "unacceptable" recent reports that some Iraqi police units were mistreating prisoners, and said "adjustments" would be made in training to stop such abuses.
Among those adjustments will be the embedding of coalition forces with Iraqi special police units, he said.
The discovery of an Iraqi government facility in November where some inmates showed signs of torture caused an outcry, but Iraqi officials defended the actions, with the interior minister noting "Nobody was beheaded or killed."(Full story)
Regarding efforts in Afghanistan, which Bush described as "the second major front in this global war against these terrorists," the president said "steady progress" has been made.
"It's amazing to see how far Afghanistan has come from the days of the Taliban," he said, citing the election of President Hamid Karzai and the creation of a sitting parliament.
Some 55,000 police officers are on the beat in Afghanistan, "working side by side with coalition forces to protect this new democracy," Bush said.
In addition, 9,000 NATO forces are in the country, to be augmented by another 6,000 this year, he said.
Last month, in a series of speeches and an Oval Office address, Bush outline a "victory plan" for the Iraq war that focused on rebuilding that nation's security, political and economic institutions. He also admitted that the administration had also made mistakes since the occupation began in 2003.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid praised Bush's "increased candor" about the war, but said "too much of the substance remains the same."
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