Thursday, January 20, 2005

Wolfowitz wanting to reduce casulty figures.

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The number two Pentagon official said reducing American casualties in Iraq was more important than bringing US troops back home -- and pointed to the rising Iraqi death toll as evidence this strategy was working.

"I'm more concerned about bringing down our casualties than bringing down our numbers," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said in an interview with PBS television's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" program. "And it is worth saying that since June 1, there have been more Iraqi police and military killed in action than Americans."

Wolfowitz said he was encouraged by the fact that Iraqis continued to volunteer to join the country's fledgling security forces, despite their losses at the hands of Islamist insurgents.

The number of Iraqi troops and police officers being trained by the US military has now reached 120,000, according to the deputy defense secretary.

But he acknowledged "there are problems in the quality" of the Iraqi recruits, who he said have a tendency to disappear from their units without permission.

The United States is also being urged by Britain to announce a possible timetable for the withdrawal of troops, a London-based newspaper said.

British officials believe that the time has come to give an "indicative timetable" for departure over the next 18 months or so, the Daily Telegraph said Thursday, citing unnamed sources.

There would be no firm deadline for the withdrawal, and it would depend on Iraqi armed forces becoming able to deal with security in the country, meaning foreign troops would not leave until around mid-2006, the report said.

British officials argue that however tentative a timetable, it would boost Iraq's transitional government and undermine claims from insurgents that Washington intends to occupy the nation indefinitely, the paper said.

"Giving a timetable would be an important political signal that we intend to leave Iraq," what was named as a "well-placed Whitehall source" -- meaning an official rather than a member of the government -- told the newspaper.

"The main Iraqi parties are already talking about when coalition forces should be drawn down. American knows it will have to deal with the issue soon."

Britain's government was hopeful that Washington could be prodded into making a formal announcement within the next few months, the report added.

Training Iraqi security forces capable of confronting the spreading insurgency in the country is the central element of a US exit strategy nearly two years after the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

US officials have repeatedly said creating a legitimate Iraqi government as a result of a free and fair election and standing up a viable security force are the main conditions for a eventual US pullout from the country.

Outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell has suggested the United States will be able to begin drawing down its forces in Iraq by the end of the year.

But neither President George W. Bush nor Wolfowitz have confirmed Powell's comments.

Instead Wolfowitz said that by the middle or the end of the year, "there will be a substantial increase in what Iraqis themselves can supply."

But he said he was not certain whether this will lead to a reduction in the US troop level, which has been boosted to more than 150,000 in advance of the January 30 election.

The deputy defense secretary also suggested that the US decision to go to war with Iraq was motivated in part by a willingness to ward off criticism of the Bush administration in case of a new terrorist attack against the United States with weapons of mass destruction.

"If we had been wrong the other way and if the threat had really been imminent and we had been hit with an anthrax attack here that was tied to Iraq and the president had done nothing about it, what would people then say?" he retorted when asked to comment about unfound weapons of mass destruction.

"I mean, it would make the criticism of failure to prevent 9/11 just look like child's play."

An independent commission report on the September 11 attacks criticized the US government for failure to see and correctly interpret signs that Al-Qaeda fighters were preparing to strike in the United States.