Powell: Troops could begin leaving Iraq this year
Secretary of state says withdrawals depend on Iraqi role
Violence escalates in the run-up to the January 30 elections.
The U.S. ends its search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Political implications of the end of the search for WMDs.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States might be able to withdraw some troops from Iraq this year if Iraqi forces can take a greater role in security, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday.
"With the assumption of that greater burden, the burden on our troops should go down, and we should start to see our numbers going in the other direction," Powell said in an interview with National Public Radio.
"But I cannot give you a timeline as to when they'll all be home."
The Pentagon has increased the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 150,000 ahead of elections for a transitional national assembly.
Powell said the elections -- scheduled for January 30 -- should not be postponed despite concerns about security in some parts of the country.
He said the establishment of an elected government in Iraq will help improve security, "because the Iraqi people know it's their government that's being assaulted, not an appointed government."
U.S. troops have battled a persistent insurgency since the invasion in March 2003 that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
More than 1,360 American troops have been killed since the invasion, most of them in the guerrilla war that followed the collapse of Saddam's government.
Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. commanders are satisfied with the number of troops at their disposal.
"The issue now is not more American troops or coalition troops for the long haul, but more Iraqi troops for the long haul, and that's where all of our resources and energy are now going," Powell said.
Public support for the conflict has dropped as the war has dragged on.
According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday, 50 percent of Americans believe the invasion was a mistake, and 59 percent believe the war is going badly for the United States.
A Republican congressman who supported the invasion of Iraq said Tuesday that the United States should begin considering plans to bring the troops home.
Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina said most of his constituents still support the war effort, but he said that support is being tested by continuing losses.
The Bush administration says U.S. troops must remain in Iraq to help establish a democratic state.
"There is a good understanding that by advancing freedom in the Middle East, we are making the world a better place and that we're making America more secure," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday.
But McClellan acknowledged that the upcoming vote "is not going to be perfect," and that some provinces will see almost no turnout because of the continuing violence.
Bush administration officials -- Powell among them -- argued that Iraq had harbored stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, a hidden nuclear weapons program and long-range missiles in violation of the cease-fire that ended the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
No evidence of such weapons or programs to develop them was found after the collapse of Saddam's government.
The CIA-led Iraq Survey Group has determined that Baghdad gave up its weapons programs in the 1990s, though some weapons-related research was concealed from U.N. weapons inspectors.
The search has ended, and the group's staff has been reassigned to work on counterinsurgency matters, a U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday. (Full story)