The United States is planning to withdraw up to a third of its forces from Iraq - possibly as early as next year.The United States is planning to withdraw up to a third of its forces from Iraq - possibly as early as next year.
Reports suggest military commanders believe they are making sufficient progress against insurgents and in training Iraqi security forces that the Pentagon has starting drawing up plans to reduce US forces from the current 142,000 to as few as 105,000.
Officials have looked at up to 70 separate indicators, including such variables as the number of assassination attempts on Iraqi officials. But the most important indicator is the sharp decline in the number of US troops being killed in action and the reduction in the number of daily attacks from insurgents.
"We had been expecting this for some time," said John Pike, director of the Washington- based think- tank GlobalSecurity.Org. "The KIA [killed in action] numbers have been very good and there is no doubt that the situation has been improving. One reason for this is that the enemy expended maximum effort against the election last January, in the sense that if you wanted to mount an attack it would be far more effective before the election than afterwards. I think they have worn themselves out, so to speak.
"The question is whether this is simply a lull and whether, once they have regrouped, it will be back to business as usual. That could very well be the case."
Although daily reports of violence and kidnapping continue, commanders say they have been heartened by figures that show a downward trend in the number of insurgent attacks on US forces. In March the number of US troops killed was 36 - the lowest for more than 12 months and a sharp decrease from the 107 killed during January. At the same time attacks on US forces have fallen to around 40 a day, down from a pre- election high of 140. Insurgents appear to be concentrating more on attacking Iraqi security forces.
General George Casey, the senior US commander in Iraq, recently told CNN that the withdrawal of troops depended on several factors, including the wishes of the recently elected Iraqi government. He said that if "all went well we should be able to take some fairly substantial reductions in the size of our forces by next year".
Iraq's President Jalal Talabani talks of a complete withdrawal of foreign troops in two years. "We are in great need to have American and other allied forces in Iraq until we will be able to rebuild our military forces," he said. "I think within two years we can do it, and we will remain in full consultation and co- ordination with our American friends who came to liberate our country."
The political bounty for Republicans from a reduction of even a third of the US troops based in Iraq would be considerable - especially in a year that will see Democrats trying to regain some ground in the mid- term elections of November 2006.
Indeed, the US has been looking for a way to get out of Iraq from almost the very moment it invaded. Throughout last year's presidential election campaign, President Bush and his senior officials refused to put a firm date to the much- talked- of "exit strategy". If military commanders now believe the situation in Iraq has eased to the extent that the Pentagon can start planning for a troop reduction, there is no doubt that Mr Bush and his colleagues will be shouting the news very loudly. Even though more than 1,540 US troops have been killed, more than 12,000 injured and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have lost their lives, the administration has been arguing that the invasion, along with January's election, was a victory for the forces of democracy.
Whether the Pentagon's assessment proves true is impossible to say. It is also unclear whether planners have considered whether the lives of ordinary Iraqis remain anything less than perilous. Just two weeks ago, Jean Ziegler, the UN Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said malnutrition rates for Iraqi children under the age of five have nearly doubled since the ousting of Saddam Hussein. "The silent daily massacre by hunger is a form of murder," he said.
Senior officials agree one key factor will be the ability to train and recruit sufficient Iraqi security forces. The Pentagon says it has trained 70 per cent of the 95,000 Iraqi troops it believes will be required to deal with insurgents and 40 per cent of the required 140,000 Iraqi police. Critics say, however, these numbers include forces that have only received minimal training.
Lt-Gen David Petreaus, the senior US officer in charge of training Iraqi recruits, told The New York Times: "There has been a steady increase, particularly since the elections, in the capabilities and numbers of Iraqi units. However, there is still a huge amount of work to be done to help them achieve the capability of conducting independent counter-insurgency operations."
Iraq: Is the tide turning?
- Attacks on allied forces have dropped to 30 to 40 a day, from a daily peak of 140 in January
- After a spate of kidnappings followed by beheadings, only two westerners are still being held.
- More than 152,000 Iraqis now trained and equipped for the military or the police commandos
- Iraqi oil production for the past 9 months has reached 205 million barrels, and exports at 1.5 million barrels a day
- Electricity is almost back up to pre-war levels when Iraq was under sanctions
- Several top aides of rebel leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi captured or killed in recent weeks
- Sovereign government was installed last week
- Civilian Iraqi deaths close to 20,000, and death-rate still rising since the elections
- Kidnappings of Iraqis is rife. Children in particular being abducted and their parents held to ransom
- Large parts of Iraq still outside US or Iraqi control. Grave doubts about quality of trained Iraqi police
- Only significant oil production is in Southern Iraq. The oil pipelines across northern Iraq are under regular attack and vulnerable to sabotage
- Power shortages remain frequent, with electricity supplies turning on and off
- Car bombers and suicide bombers continue to target the US military and the government
- Some 48 per cent of Iraqis are still out of work