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Shepperd: U.S. sticking to plan on Iraq pullout

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Retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd

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Iraq

TUCSON, Arizona (CNN) -- Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in charge of coalition forces in Iraq, projects large reductions in the 127,000-member American force in Iraq, starting in September and continuing through 2007, according to a New York Times report.

The Times reported that by the end of next year, the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq could be more than halved. President Bush said Monday any reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq would depend on conditions on the ground.

Casey discussed the reduction plan with a CNN military analyst, retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, who spoke with CNN's Daryn Kagan on Monday.

KAGAN: So this was a meeting that you were in where General Casey talked about this, among many other things.

SHEPPERD: Yes. There were 10 of us, Daryn, and ... he didn't talk about numbers. He talked about the conditions that had to be set before we could start coming home. This has long been a measure of discussion in Iraq. And basically what he said when the Iraqis are ready, we want to leave. They want us to leave, and we want to leave.

The numbers that are being discussed -- a couple of brigades this year, maybe down to four or five next year -- those numbers were not discussed at the meeting that I attended. On the other hand, he made it clear that we could go up or we could go down, just depending on the conditions in Iraq.

KAGAN: And so what was your impression, as you were listening to this update?

SHEPPERD: My impression was that there is nothing new in the article that was presented by New York Times. Basically what the general is saying is when the Iraqi security forces get strong enough -- and he's very confident that they're coming up to speed very quickly. He made the point that ... we have three times as many divisions, brigades and battalions that are trained as this time last year, and about 80 percent of those are capable of ... taking the lead in operations.

Additionally, one of the provinces, Muthanna in the south, the governor has certified that he is ready to assume security responsibilities. General Casey said that basically what that will mean is, as the governors certify, then the minister of the interior and the minister of defense and the prime minister will agree with that, and they will assume responsibility for that province, and we will withdraw, still maintaining the right of passage, the right to conduct counterterrorism operations with coordination and then maintaining quick reaction capabilities to support them if they get in trouble.

KAGAN: Two things here. One -- and you just addressed this -- the readiness of Iraqi troops. But also, if you draw down too quickly, giving into political pressure, then what about the safety of U.S. troops that remain behind?

SHEPPERD: Well, I think we're going to be able to protect the U.S. troops that remain behind. That will be a major planning and responsibility for U.S. commanders over there. There's going to be given a lot of attention to that as we draw down in numbers, to make sure the people left are safe.

But we are going to be involved over there for an extended period of time from everything I see. We're going to have advisers. And as they come up to speed, conducting operations, we're going to supply medevac air transportation, logistics, intelligence, that type of thing. So we're going to be involved over there for quite a while with a significant number of people. But the combat troops will be coming down in numbers.

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