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Bush to halt Iraq troop cuts

President George W. Bush announced a suspension of US troop withdrawals from Iraq this summer to allow the military to reassess the security situation, as US air strikes killed 10 people in a Baghdad slum where dozens of people died in clashes this week.

Iraqi police said on Thursday that US air strikes killed 10 people in Sadr City, a militia stronghold in eastern Baghdad where street fighting had eased after four days of clashes that killed close to 90 people.

Bush endorsed a recommendation by his commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, to complete a limited withdrawal of combat troops by July, but then impose a 45-day freeze of the total at about 140,000 troops before considering more possible cuts.

“I've told him he'll have all the time he needs,” Bush said in Washington.

The Sadr City slum has since Sunday been the focal point of battles between security forces and black-masked Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The violence is an extension of clashes that erupted in March when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki cracked down on the militia in the southern city of Basra. It has colored a US election-year debate over troop cuts by highlighting the fragility of recent security gains.

In his speech, Bush stepped up his criticism of Iran, accusing it of backing militants behind attacks in Iraq, and said failure in Iraq would embolden both Iran and al Qaeda.

“Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: al Qaeda and Iran,” Bush said, although he reassured a weary public that the war will end.

“While this war is difficult, it is not endless,” he said of the conflict, now in its sixth year.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates held out the prospect of more troop withdrawals this autumn. “I would emphasize that the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall,” he told the US Senate Armed Services Committee.

Iraqi police said two separate US air strikes on Thursday killed six people and wounded 10 in Sadr City. Lt. Col. Steven Stover, a US military spokesman, confirmed two strikes on a suspected rocket site from a drone plane but said he was unaware of any deaths.

Late on Wednesday, a US helicopter fired two missiles at gunmen in the slum who attacked a joint US-Iraqi security station, killing four, Stover said. Iraqi police and hospital officials said two of the four dead were young boys.

A roadside bomb also killed a US soldier in Baghdad overnight, raising the US military death toll in Iraq to 20 for April, putting this month on track to be the deadliest for American soldiers since September.

US military deaths have averaged roughly one a day over the past six months but that number has doubled in April.

Still, police, the US military and residents said the streets of Sadr City were calmer than in the past four days, when Sadr's militia battled the US and Iraqi military.

“The situation is quieter. We are hearing sporadic gunfire and US combat planes have been flying overhead but the Iraqi military is not in the streets like past days,” Sadr City resident Raad al-Humairi said.

“Some shops have opened. People buy what they need and then the shops close again.”

For the first time in many days, the US Embassy said the heavily fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad had not sustained rocket or mortar attacks from Sadr's militia.

The Iraqi military plans to lift on Saturday a 2-week-old vehicle blockade in Sadr City that has led to piled-up rubbish and food and medicine shortages in the district of 2 million people.

On Thursday, US and Iraqi forces raided a Sadr office in the town of Numaniya, south of Baghdad, seizing weapons and imposing a curfew, police said.

Under Bush's plan, the military will complete a withdrawal in July of some 20,000 extra combat troops deployed in the past year but then pause before deciding whether more can be pulled out. Bush also said he was reducing combat tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan to one year from 15 months. (Reuters)