WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should be able to continue to cut troop levels in Iraq, the general overseeing U.S. forces there said on Thursday, while stressing the need for Iraqi leaders to form a "legitimate government."
The United States has 133,000 troops in Iraq, the Pentagon said, down from about 160,000 in place in December during parliamentary elections.
"I think the downward trend is a trend that, based on what I see right now, is one that will continue," Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview with wire service reporters at the Pentagon.
"We'll move forces in and we'll move forces out as the situation on the ground dictates. But I think the general trend given legitimate government emerging will be: Iraqis do more, we do less, and eventually more reductions come about," Abizaid said.
Sectarian violence flared in Iraq, already a volatile brew of ethnic and sectarian tensions among Shi'ite Muslims, Sunnis and Kurds, after the Feb. 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Iraq's four holiest Shi'ite shrines.
The United States this week deployed to the Baghdad area about 650 soldiers from a reserve force in Kuwait to provide extra security during the formation of a new government and during a Shi'ite mourning ritual next week.
"Right now I would tell you that our general plan (on the U.S. troop presence) is not unhinged by current events," Abizaid said.
"I'm not predicting any specific reductions based on the current circumstances. It really is important to move through this period," he added. "I'm not saying that we're not going to do it. And I'm not saying that we are going to do it. I'm saying that we've got a period of sensitivity here that has to be taken into account. And the sectarian tensions are high."
Some experts say the latest sectarian violence has driven Iraq to the verge of civil war.
"I understand everybody talks about 'the verge of civil war.' I don't believe that we're close to civil war. I believe a civil war is possible if a long series of events or a bad series of events takes place," Abizaid said.
"I think there's more people trying to hold the country together than take it apart," Abizaid added.
Iraqi leaders have not yet formed a new, permanent government in the wake of the Dec. 15 elections, adding to the tensions nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion. U.S. leaders have urged them to form a government distributing power among the rival Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, last year forecast a "fairly substantial" reduction in U.S. troops this spring and summer if Iraq's political process goes well and progress is made in developing Iraqi security forces.
Pentagon officials have said they expect Casey to make a recommendation to the Pentagon this spring on future U.S. troop levels. Casey said this month the recent spike in violence will be a factor in his recommendation.
Defense officials have said options include dropping to about 100,000, but also possibly making a lesser cut or none at all.
Abizaid also amplified on comments by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Iranian Revolutionary Guard personnel had been inside Iraq. Abizaid said that Iran has intelligence agents operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region, and that they have links to groups, primarily Shi'ite, that are of concern to the United States.