WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Thursday raised the possibility of reducing U.S. troop levels in Iraq next year below the 137,000 level of the summer.
Between meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Rumsfeld told reporters that if next week's elections in Iraq go well he expects U.S. troops levels, which were boosted to nearly 160,000 in advance of the election, to return to the 137,000 level.
"If conditions permit, we could go below that," he said.
Later he stressed that a decision to go below 137,000 would depend on conditions after the election and the recommendation of senior U.S. commanders.
The Pentagon started building up troop levels this fall to 160,000 for extra security during Iraqi elections in October and in December.
Rumsfeld went to Capitol Hill as part of the administration's effort to communicate more with Congress about the war in Iraq. Some lawmakers, including Republicans, had been pressing for more information on the war.
Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had breakfast at the Pentagon with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who has supported the administration on Iraq in recent weeks, and then met with rank-and-file House members. All but one of the House members were Republican, even though other Democrats had been invited. Rumsfeld and Pace also went to the White House for a meeting with congressional GOP leaders on defense issues.
Expected to come up at that meeting was a proposed ban on the "cruel, inhuman and degrading" treatment of foreign prisoners in U.S. custody and legislation standardizing interrogation techniques.
The Senate overwhelmingly supports the provisions, which were sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and included them in its two defense measures. The House bills omit the provisions, and lawmakers from both chambers are trying to write final bills.
Negotiations between the White House and McCain were continuing in hopes of reaching a compromise that would satisfy administration concerns. "I haven't seen the latest draft, but my guess is they'll end up working something out," Rumsfeld said.
On Iraq, the Pentagon chief also said an increase in violence is expected around the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections in Iraq because "the terrorists have a great deal to lose, if the election is successful, which it will be."
"Thereafter, the hope is that the conditions will permit some drawdowns in troops," he said.
Asked about news reports that he plans to step down, Rumsfeld told reporters, "Those reports have been flying around since about four months after I assumed my post" in 2001.
"I have no plans to retire," he said.
On Wednesday, defense officials said the Pentagon has tentative plans to halt the scheduled deployment of two brigades to Iraq and instead to send smaller teams to support and train Iraqi forces in what could be an early step toward an eventual drawdown of U.S. forces.The proposal comes amid growing pressure from Congress and the public to pull troops out of Iraq.
Details are still under discussion, and the plan would largely depend on the military and political conditions there after the parliamentary elections next week, said the officials.