US will stay at full strength in Iraq until 2010, says army chief

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Military commanders at the Pentagon have revealed that they are laying plans to maintain troop numbers in Iraq at about 140,000 for at least another four years as sectarian violence continues to surge and fatalities among American soldiers have risen sharply.

The comments, by General Peter Schoomaker, army chief of staff, implied that military brass see little prospect of reducing their commitment in Iraq any time soon. He said the Pentagon was working to sustain 140,000 troops until late 2010.

The decision was, he said, a result only of careful planning by the Pentagon and was not meant to indicate that it had given up on conditions improving and more troops coming home.

"This is not a prediction that things are going poorly or better," Gen Schoomaker said at the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army. "I have to have enough ammo in the magazine that I can continue to shoot as long as they want us to shoot."

However, only a few months ago, US commanders in Iraq were tentatively suggesting reducing troop numbers by about 15,000, or two brigades, by the end of this year or early in 2007.

The US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was forced to respond to Gen Schoomaker's comments, insisting that it remained possible that troop reductions could still come sooner than 2010.