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Bush slaps down top general after he calls for troops to be pulled out of Iraq
By Philip Sherwell in Washington, Telegraph News
The top American commander in Iraq has been privately rebuked by the Bush administration for openly discussing plans to reduce troop levels there next year, The Sunday Telegraph has learned.
President George W Bush personally intervened last week to play down as "speculation" all talk of troop pull-outs because he fears that even discussing options for an "exit strategy" implies weakening resolve.
General George Casey
Gen George Casey, the US ground commander in Iraq, was given his dressing-down after he briefed that troop levels - now 138,000 - could be reduced by 30,000 in the early months of next year as Iraqi security forces take on a greater role.
The unusual sign of US discord came as Iraqi politicians and clerics drafting a new constitution continued their own wrangling over autonomy demands by various factions.
Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and a Kurd, predicted that a draft of the new constitution should be ready today, 24 hours ahead of Monday's deadline, but other delegates were less optimistic.
"If God is willing, tomorrow it will be ready," Mr Talabani told a news conference in Baghdad yesterday, but admitted that two significant issues remained unresolved: the question of federalism in the south, and the relation between religion and state.
Shia Muslims, who lead Iraq's interim coalition government, are pushing for a clause saying that all laws passed by parliament must be compatible with Islam - a proposal most other participants oppose.
Meanwhile, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, threatened to kill any imam who backs the constitution, according to a statement posted on the internet yesterday but whose origin could not be independently verified.
Cindy Sheehan protesting outside Mr Bush's ranch
Mr Bush is expected to place phone calls to some of the senior Iraqi negotiators in Baghdad if the deadlock remains. Last week as he came under renewed pressure from anti-war protesters to pull out, he dismissed any prospect of an immediate troop withdrawal. Mr Bush was responding to calls by Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who has set up a protest camp outside his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where Mr Bush is on holiday.
Politically, the administration will be under pressure to signal a significant cut in the US presence by autumn next year to help Republicans fighting mid-term elections in November 2006. Military commanders, however, also need to wind down numbers, the imperative that prompted Gen Casey's comments, according to Dan Goure, a Pentagon adviser and vice-president of the Lexington Institute defence think-tank.
"It's number-driven," Mr Goure said. "The military can only maintain these levels in Iraq if it has absolutely no choice. Otherwise, the current pattern of rotations and other commitments mean that they will have to lower numbers."
There will, in any case, be a short-term increase in US troop levels to cover the Iraq elections scheduled for December. After that, said Mr Goure, the military has drawn up three broad strategies for cutting troops.
Their "best scenario" target is to reduce numbers to 60,000-70,000 by next autumn if Iraqi forces start to make progress against the insurgents. The fall-back option would be Gen Casey's minimum 30,000 reduction by the summer.
There is also a rarely-mentioned "Plan C" - complete withdrawal if all-out civil war erupts between the Shias and Sunnis, both of whom are engaged in a last-ditch battle for political territory in the current negotiations.
The Kurds and Shia Arabs want strong regional governments to be created in their northern and southern strongholds. But the minority Sunni Arabs, who dominated the country under Saddam Hussein, fear that they will be left with the central dust-bowl.
Sunni religious leaders, who led the boycott of January's elections, are now calling for their followers to register to vote in case they decide to oppose the constitution's federalism clauses in October's referendum.
The constitution will be considered void if it is rejected by two-thirds of voters in three provinces. Sunnis form a majority in four provinces.
A chemicals production plant thought to have been built by insurgents was found by US forces last week in a raid near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
7 August 2005: Iraqi rebels use bombs smuggled in from Iran