The U.S. military is likely to maintain and may even increase its force of more than 140,000 troops in Iraq through next spring, the top American commander in the region said Tuesday in one of the gloomiest assessments yet of when troops may come home.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command, said military leaders would consider adding troops or extending the Iraq deployments of other units if needed. Until sectarian violence spiked early this year, Bush administration officials had voiced hopes that this election year would see significant U.S. troop reductions in what has become a widely unpopular war.
"If it's necessary to do that because the military situation on the ground requires that, we'll do it," Abizaid said of longer deployments. "If we have to call in more forces because it's our military judgment that we need more forces, we'll do it."
His comments came as violence across Iraq killed at least 16 civilians Tuesday and wounded dozens of others. Iraqi lawmakers angered by the relentless violence demanded that the defense and interior ministers appear before parliament to explain what they are doing to eliminate the death squads that have claimed hundreds of Iraqi lives.
Saddam judge out
In other news from Iraq on Tuesday, the Iraqi government ordered the chief judge in the genocide trial of Saddam Hussein to step down because he said last week that Saddam was "not a dictator," prompting legal experts to voice concern that the dismissal could undermine the independence of the tribunal hearing the case.
The Iraqi cabinet voted unanimously to remove the judge, Abdullah al-Amiri, a Shiite Muslim who had served as a judge during Saddam's rule, because it thought he was no longer impartial and his conduct had "injured the feelings of the victims in the case," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Al-Amiri issued his controversial declaration, which angered many Iraqis, during a courtroom exchange Thursday, one day after the prosecution accused him of bias and asked him to step down because he had "allowed the defendants to treat the chamber as a political forum."
When a Kurdish farmer testified that he had begged Saddam in 1988 to spare the lives of his family, Saddam leapt out of his seat and asked why the farmer would have tried to plead with him if he was, in fact, a dictator.
"You were not a dictator," the judge replied, adding that those around Saddam had made him one.
Saddam smiled and replied, "Thank you."