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Online edition, Wednesday, July 29, 2009

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey — Thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq could be coming home earlier than anticipated, perhaps by the end of the year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday.

The decision will not be made before this fall, and Gates said it will be top U.S. commander Gen. Raymond Odierno’s to make.

The secretary’s comments came the morning after he dined privately with Odierno. Gates said that before next January’s critical national elections in Iraq, one brigade combat team — perhaps as many as 5,000 troops — could be sent home early.

After receiving on-the-ground briefings across Iraq, Gates credited the drawdown possibility to diminished violence, greater cooperation between Iraqi security forces and Americans, and the quicker-than-expected division of labor occurring across the country since the June 30 combat troop pullout from Iraq’s cities.

“I think there is, at least — and I’m not going to get into any specifics — but I think that there is some chance of a modest acceleration because of the way that Gen. Odierno sees things going,” said Gates, speaking to reporters aboard his military 747 on Wednesday shortly before departing Turkey for the United States.

Gates said that Odierno, as well as other commanders from Talil, in the south, to Irbil, in the north, feel that the June 30 pullout went better than expected.

“Nothing’s going to happen very soon, but he’s looking at all the possibilities and is very encouraged,” said Gates. “I don’t want to put the general in the corner. I mean, it really depends on circumstances there. But I mention that only because I think it is an indicator of his view that things are going pretty well.”

The original drawdown plan was to go from 14 BCTs to 12 by the end of the year. Instead, the number could go down to 11, but press secretary Geoff Morrell said that would not be discussed until the fall and is somewhat tied to the state of Kurd-Arab tensions.

“Frankly, that is the only thing that could derail the withdraw schedule,” said Morrell.

Gates completed a three-day, three-country tour of the Middle East, stopping in Israel and Jordan before Iraq.

On Tuesday, Iraqi leaders discussed issues important to moving forward, including equipment needs and outstanding issues related to their borders and “hydrocarbons”.

Gen. Odierno told reporters that evening that he felt the war in Iraq was still on, as civilians have become more likely targets by a more desperate, if less frequently heard from, insurgency. Additionally, the city of Mosul remains a last hotbed for al-Qaida in Iraq.

On Wednesday, Gates visited briefly with Kurdish leaders and said he gave them the same advice he gave Iraq’s national leaders in Baghdad the day before: take advantage of U.S. participation sooner rather than later.

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