BAGHDAD, Dec 9 (AFP): Despite no let-up in the deadly insurgency, the US military has delayed sending a combat brigade to Iraq and put another on hold in a move which could see troop levels scaled back after next week's key election.
More than 100 Iraqi civilians, security forces and police cadets have been killed in suicide bombings, ambushes and shootings in the last week alone, amid a resurgent kidnapping crisis and growing fears for seven Western hostages.
Bolstered Iraqi forces and multiple military campaigns have done little to ease the daily diet of bloodshed as top US military officials predict an upsurge in unrest ahead of next Thursday's general election.
Yet faced with mounting calls for US troops to come home, the military has delayed the deployment of a combat brigade to Iraq and put another on standby in what could suggest the start of a long-awaited drawdown of US forces.
"One's delayed and one's on standby," said a US defence official in Washington on condition of anonymity. Each brigade has around 5,000 troops.
Around 160,000 US troops are serving in Iraq, bolsted by extra forces ahead of an October referendum and next week's election, the end of the US-led political transition following the US-led invasion in 2003.
Major General Rick Lynch, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq has warned of further attacks in the run-up to the election.
After the ballot, forces then scheduled to leave Iraq would bring US troop levels down to 138,000, amid growing public calls for soldiers to come home.
The US defence official said decisions on deeper cuts could come within weeks of the elections. "Things could happen very rapidly," he said.
Iraqi government officials have warned that a premature withdrawal of foreign troops could be disastrous until local forces are able to take over.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Canberra will extend the deployment of around 450 troops guarding Japanese military engineers in Iraq.
Howard, one of US President George W. Bush's closest allies, said it was "unlikely" that Australian troops will leave Iraq in May, when their current rotation is due to end.
Concerns are growing for the fate of seven Western hostages kidnapped in Iraq in the past two weeks, four of them Christian peace activists.
An extremist Islamic group in Iraq claimed on Thursday to have killed an American contractor but there has been no official confirmation of his death.