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Mideast edition, Thursday, September 13, 2007

WASHINGTON — The commander of Multi-National Force–Iraq on Wednesday deflected calls for a more ambitious drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq than he outlined to Congress this week, calling his plan a responsible and safe approach.

Gen. David Petraeus, speaking to reporters after two days of testimony before the House and Senate, said his plan to withdraw about 30,000 troops from Iraq by July 2008 is based on the current security improvements there over the last few months.

But he emphasized that officials need to wait and re-examine the level of violence and political progress in coming months before making plans beyond that.

“What we have laid out now is prudent, and reflects my judgment of what can be done to reduce forces without jeopardizing the gains they have achieved,” he said.

Petraeus would not speculate about what moves the U.S. might make if the Iraqi government makes little progress in power-sharing between now and next summer, or if Iraqi security forces continue to lag in their ability to operate independently.

The drawdown would begin with the departure of 2,000 troops from the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit later this month, with no replacement unit to follow.

The Marines were deployed to Anbar province in June as part of the “surge” in U.S. forces earlier this year. All of the planned troop reductions — with the exception of one Army brigade combat team to leave in December — would be from that temporary increase in troop levels.

Critics in Congress questioned whether removing those “surge” units that were already scheduled to leave Iraq by next summer represents a true reduction in troop levels there, but Petraeus insisted the plan is a move toward bringing all of the troops home.

“We could have requested more ‘surge’ forces,” he said. “But we know the demands that would put on the services, and the strain and stress on the force was on our mind.”

Both Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said when they return to Iraq next week their top priority will be looking for ways to get other government agencies, such as the Department of State, involved in Iraq reconstruction and stability efforts as the military presence decreases.

“We keep hearing from people that they want to help, but the security situation is not good,” Petraeus said. “Not all elements of our government are on the same war footing. We will look for more opportunities to fix that.”

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