NEW YORK – U.S. troops could begin leaving Iraq in significant numbers sometime next year, so long as Iraqi forces are properly armed and trained by then, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi told a U.S. audience on Friday.
Chalabi, the controversial former exile who came to New York after meetings with top U.S. officials in Washington, said the Iraqi army should be equipped with American weaponry and properly trained to protect itself against the armies of its neighbors, which include Syria and Iran.
They must also be given "more latitude" in recruitment, he told a gathering at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"If we do the right thing together, I think significant American troops can be withdrawn from Iraq without causing a serious security threat during 2006, next year," he said.
Chalabi's prediction contradicts the message from the Bush administration, which has refused to set a timetable for withdrawal for the estimated 150,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq.
Earlier this year, U.S. military officials said they thought they could begin fairly substantial troop withdrawals next spring. But they have since backed off that claim, and in October, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad said it will take up to two years for the Iraqi army to have the military leadership and supplies it needs to operate on its own.
Chalabi, who plans to run in Iraq's Dec. 15 parliamentary election, received a warm reception from the council and moderator Fouad Ajami, a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
He got one question about claims that his exile group, the Iraqi National Congress, may have fed information to the U.S. that Saddam Hussein had amassed hidden arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. His critics say that helped fuel President Bush's case for war.
"I want to tell you that the fact that I perpetuated a case for war based on weapons of mass destruction is an urban myth which is not rooted in reality," he said, echoing remarks he made in Washington earlier this week.
The only tense moment during the talk came when Arianna Huffington, a columnist and blogger who has opposed the Iraq war and criticized Chalabi, tried to follow up the question on intelligence but was cut off by the moderator, Ajami, who refused to call on her. The actor John Cusack, a fellow Bush administration opponent and blogger on her Web site, sat next to her quietly looking on.