US Defense Secretary Robert Gates says a current plan to reduce the number of US troops in Iraq remains on track, but further withdrawals will depend on the readiness of the Iraqi army.
Gates told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday that evidence suggests the United States will be able to complete the withdrawal of five combat brigades from Iraq by the end of July (with each brigade having 35-hundred to four thousand troops). That would leave about 130-thousand US troops in Iraq.
Gates said he hopes the pace of the withdrawal in the first half of the year will continue in the second half, but that will depend on a March assessment from the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, on the readiness of Iraqi forces.
In Iraqon Thursday, police said a suicide bomber blew himself up near a Shi'ite mosque north of Baghdad, killing at least eight people and wounding at least 13 others.
Police say the attacker struck outside the city of Baquba as worshippers gathered for a ceremony marking Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Shi'ite Muslim calendar.
Iraqi authorities have announced curfews in Baghdad, Diyala and 10 southern provinces to protect pilgrims attending the 10-day long religious ritual, a target in the past for militant attacks.
Thousands of black-clad pilgrims from across Iraq and the rest of the Muslim world are converging in the Iraqi Shi'ite city of Karbala to participate in the event. The ritual commemorates the seventh-century killing in Karbala of the grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammed.
Separately today, the US military in Iraq said coalition forces killed two suspected terrorists and detained 17 others during operations targeting al-Qaida networks in northern Iraq.