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U.S. Prepared To Maintain Troop Levels In Iraq --> 20 April 2004 -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said today that the United States is prepared to maintain its troops in Iraq at 135,000 and even increase them if requested by the senior military commander in the region, U.S. General John Abizaid.

But Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference there are currently no such plans to do so. He noted that 20,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq were told recently to stay there for an extra 90 days because of an upsurge of fighting. Rumsfeld said those troops held back will be going home after the extension.

"In the event he [Abizaid] decides he wants to stay at 135,000 [troops in Iraq] after the 90 days in the country expires, we have thought through how those people would be replaced. And in the event he were to require still additional forces, we have thought through that as well," Rumsfeld said.

Also in Washington, top Pentagon officials assured members of Congress that the U.S. military will have authority to operate unhindered in Iraq regardless of who assumes power after sovereignty is transferred on 30 June.

In Iraq today, the U.S. military says attackers fired 12 mortar rounds into Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison, reportedly killing 22 prisoners and wounding 92. The military says all the casualties were Iraqis held on suspicion of involvement in anti-U.S. violence or the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime.

In another development, U.S. Marines killed eight insurgents in Al-Fallujah, but security forces and civilians who fled days of street fighting in the city began to return in a test of an agreement between U.S. officials and local leaders to fend off an all-out assault by U.S. forces.

And in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a roadside bomb exploded as a U.S. military convoy passed, reportedly wounding five U.S. soldiers and three Iraqi civilians.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said following a meeting with Qatar's foreign minister that the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq remains strong despite the announced withdrawal of Spanish troops. Armitage said the coalition has not been shaken by Spain's decision to pull its 1,300 troops from Iraq.

Armitage is on a Middle East tour that has taken him to Jordan, Iraq, and Bahrain. Reports say Armitage is likely to also visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

(RFE/RL and wire reports)