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100,000 U.S. troops could leave soon: Iraq president

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least 100,000 U.S. troops could return home from Iraq by the end of 2008, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in an interview aired on Sunday although he proposed that several American military bases stay in Iraq.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani waves as he departs the White House a in Washington October 2, 2007. Talabani said on Sunday at least 100,000 U.S. troops could return home from Iraq by the end of 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Speaking on CNN television, Talabani envisioned faster U.S. troop reductions than U.S. commanders have discussed in public. But he stressed that the pace of withdrawal was up to those commanders and did not explain why he foresaw a faster pullout.

“I think it is possible at the end of the next year that a big part of the American Army will be back here,” said Talabani, who gave the interview during a trip to the United States. “More than 100,000 (troops) can be back by the end of the next year.”

But Talabani, a Kurd and former guerrilla leader who fought Saddam Hussein, said he was not pushing for an independent Kurdistan in Iraq’s North, because neighboring countries would never agree to it.

He also expressed confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an Arab from the Shi’ite Muslim majority, saying Maliki was not personally corrupt despite allegations of widespread corruption in his government. “He is a clean man,” Talabani said.

The United States currently has about 165,000 troops in Iraq. Under pressure from opposition Democrats and some senior Republicans for big cuts in troops, President George W. Bush last month approved a plan from his top commander in Iraq to gradually reduce the U.S. force by 20,000 to 30,000 by mid-2008.

Pentagon chief Robert Gates says he hopes for cuts of around 20,000 more troops by January 2009, when the next president will take office. But even if that happens, the pullouts would add up to only about half the number Talabani is saying could leave in the same period of time.

Talabani said that the United States could start significant reductions of its forces in Iraq next spring. He proposed three U.S. military bases remain after most of the Americans are gone -- in the north, south and middle of Iraq.

U.S. BASES “FOR A WHILE”

Small numbers of U.S. soldiers would stay behind “for training and for the stability of Iraq, and preventing our neighbors from interfering” in Iraq’s affairs, he said.

Talabani declined to describe these as permanent bases, saying only that they should stay “for a while.”

The Bush administration denies seeking permanent bases in Iraq. But Gates has spoken of having a reduced presence there for a “prolonged” period of time, as the United States has had for decades in Korea and Germany.

Talabani said it was in Kurdish interests to be part of a democratic, federal Iraq -- not an independent Kurdish state, which would be landlocked and face hostility from neighbors with Kurdish minorities. “There is no possibility of having independent Kurdistan for many reasons,” he said.

“Let us imagine that Kurdistan declares independence. Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, they then send arms to fight that, but close the border, how we can leave? ... This is impossible,” he said. The northern Kurdish region is home to about 5 million of Iraq’s 26 million people.

Talabani favored a resolution passed recently by the U.S. Senate calling for a weak central government in Baghdad and strong regional governments. The resolution provoked a storm of protest from many other Iraqi politicians, including Maliki.

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