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U.S. Sees Only Modest Troop Cuts In Iraq This Year

Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin (right) with visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Iraq (file photo)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- A top U.S. commander has said he does not foresee any additional troop cuts in Iraq in 2009, noting that a strong force would be needed to secure national elections expected at the end of the year.

"We absolutely have to make sure that we have the adequate force available to provide that same degree of security that we saw at the end of January for the provincial elections," U.S. Army Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters by video link from Baghdad.

The U.S. military announced on March 8 that it would cut the number of U.S. troops in Iraq by about 12,000 over the next six months from the current level of around 140,000.

"That's what we can see at this point," said Austin, commander of Multinational Corps Iraq, which controls operations across the country.

"What we have right now is what we plan on having for the foreseeable future," he said.

President Barack Obama announced last month that the United States will withdraw around 100,000 troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a force of between 35,000 and 50,000.

Under a security pact between the United States and Iraq, all U.S. forces are due to leave by the end of 2011.

Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically over the past 18 months due to factors including a "surge" of U.S. forces, Sunni Arabs turning against Al-Qaeda militants, and a cease-fire by radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

There are now fewer than 100 attacks in Iraq each week, Austin said, down from just fewer than 400 per week when he took command in February 2008.

But the general cautioned there was still work to be done, particularly in the northern city of Mosul, believed to be Al-Qaeda's last urban stronghold in Iraq, and the ethnically mixed province of Diyala.

"We are close to sustainable security, but we're not there yet," Austin said.