ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — A combat brigade of 5,000 American troops may be brought home early from Iraq if the trend of reduced violence holds, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.
It was the first suggestion that the administration might rethink its decision to keep as many forces in Iraq as possible this year. Obama has settled on a gradual withdrawal despite his opposition to the war as a candidate.
U.S. officials had worried that last month's handover of control of Iraqi cities to Iraqi security forces might erode gains already made. But Gates said Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. general in Iraq, told him the security situation is better than expected. An Associated Press tally shows seven U.S. troop deaths this month, the lowest monthly total so far since the Iraq war started in 2003.
The United States has about 130,000 forces in Iraq, with current plans calling for more than 100,000 to stay there until after Iraqi elections in January.
Violent clashes continued for a second day between Iraqi troops and members of an Iranian opposition group whose camp the Iraqis stormed Tuesday. At least eight Iranians have been killed and 400 wounded since Tuesday, when hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers in riot gear plowed into Camp Ashraf, officials said. Camp residents described the day's events as a massacre and the aftermath as a tense stalemate.
In weekend elections in the self-ruled Kurdish north, a new opposition group registered surprising gains, but the two ruling parties that have clashed with Baghdad over disputed land and oil maintained a strong grip on power, officials said.