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Signs show U.S. is leaving Iraq, but there's no hurry

WASHINGTON

At every stop on his three-day tour of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent a similar message: the U.S. military is not rushing to get out, but it is getting out, nevertheless.

In his public appearances with U.S. soldiers and commanders, as well as with Iraqi officials, Rumsfeld emphasized the positive - an elected Iraqi government is being formed under a new constitution, and Iraq's own soldiers and police are shouldering more of the security duties.

In other words, the U.S. military is getting out.

That doesn't mean Rumsfeld believes the Iraqis are yet capable of making it on their own. There is still the potential for civil war, and a resilient and deadly insurgency is still alive. But it explains Rumsfeld's assertions that success in Iraq will be decided by the Iraqis.

It also explains why Rumsfeld and his commanders are now scaling back the U.S. presence in Iraq by canceling the deployment of two Army brigades that had been scheduled to deploy in coming weeks. Fewer U.S. combat troops are needed because the Iraqis will be doing more of the fighting.

"We'll keep passing off responsibility to them," as Rumsfeld put it more than once while in Iraq.

He returned to Washington early Sunday after visiting the Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Balad, Fallujah and Mosul.

U.S. domestic political pressures surely are among the reasons the White House wants 2006 to be a pivotal year in which the U.S. military presence in Iraq gets much smaller, looking ahead to midterm congressional elections in November in which Bush's Iraq policy is likely to be a key issue.

Rumsfeld and others worry that the longer U.S. troops remain there in large numbers, the harder it may become to get out.

"U.S. and coalition military leadership is trying to seek the proper balance between having a military footprint large enough to help the Iraqis win their fight against terrorists," Rumsfeld said in Fallujah on Friday. "But not a footprint so large or so intrusive as to antagonize a proud and patriotic people, or to discourage the Iraqi people from taking initiative to run their own country for themselves."

In other words, the U.S. military is getting out.

Before flying home on Christmas Eve, Rumsfeld was briefed on what the military calls a "tips line" that is heavily advertised to encourage citizens in the Mosul area to call Iraqi security forces with tips on insurgents.

"You can remain anonymous but please don't remain silent," says a public flyer that also mentions that tips which lead to a conviction "may allow you to be eligible for financial rewards."

Rumsfeld was told the number of tips have roughly doubled in recent months, one of numerous examples of what he and U.S. commanders say are signs that the tide may be turning against the insurgency.

On the other hand, some of these "tips" are really no more than attempts by one ethnic or religious or tribal faction to retaliate or seek revenge against a rival by anonymously pointing the finger.

It's also true that the Americans clearly are not fully convinced that the worst is over.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters on Friday that instead of sending home an Army brigade that he does not now need in Iraq, he is keeping it nearby in Kuwait as a "hedge against the uncertainty of the next few months" when Iraqis will be forming a new government.

Casey said he hopes to be able to recommend further troop reductions next spring, assuming the Iraqis put their new government in place in a reasonably short period of time - perhaps a few months. If things turn sour, Casey said, he is willing to reverse direction and ask President Bush to approve an increase in U.S. troop levels until the political process gets back on track.

Among the small signs from Rumsfeld's visit that point to his increased confidence in security in Iraq: he spent two nights in the country. On previous trips since the insurgency took hold in midsummer 2003 he never spent the night.

In a move that some might consider even bolder, Rumsfeld took a ride on the main road leading out of the city to Baghdad International Airport. Until recent months it was notorious as the most dangerous stretch of pavement in the country, with roadside bombings taking a heavy toll.

After dining Friday night with a group of Iraqi politicians, Rumsfeld told Casey, who was returning with him to Camp Victory near the airport, that he wanted to take the airport road. More commonly - and more safely, many would argue - they would have flown the short distance by helicopter.

The road is not the safest, but it got safer when Iraqi forces took a bigger role in securing it.

In other words, the U.S. military is getting out.

Robert Burns has covered military and national security affairs for the AP since 1990.