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US Defense Chief Hopes to Cut More Troops from Iraq


US - IRAQ: U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says it may be possible to reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq by nearly 35 percent, to about 100 thousand, by the end of next year. Gates told reporters at the Pentagon Friday he thinks conditions in Iraq could improve enough to allow much deeper cuts in 2008 than are currently scheduled. He says he is expressing his hope, in this case, not a specific plan by the Bush administration. The United States currently has 169 thousand troops in Iraq. In six months' time, Gates says, he is hopeful that U.S. commanders will be able to recommend the withdrawal of five of the 20 combat brigades now assigned to Iraq.

IRAQ: The U.S. military says coalition and Iraqi forces have killed 14 terrorists and detained 17 suspects during operations targeting senior leaders of al-Qaida in Iraq. A military statement says several raids were conducted today in central and northern Iraq. On Friday, al-Qaida in Iraq claimed responsibility for a bomb attack Thursday that killed Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha - a key U.S. ally in Iraq. The attack on Abu Risha took place near his home in Ramadi in al-Anbar province. Last year, Abu Risha organized Sunni Arab clans (under the umbrella of the Anbar Awakening Council) to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.

US RELIGION REPORT: A U.S. government report says religious freedom has sharply declined in Iraq over the past year, with worshippers of all faiths coming under attack. In its annual report on religious freedom worldwide, the State Department says the violence goes beyond the traditional Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry. It says members of all religions in Iraq have been victims of "harassment, intimidation, kidnapping and killings." The report was released Friday on the same day the White House reported to Congress that Iraq's government is making satisfactory progress toward reducing sectarian violence.

US RELIGION SDBR - EAST ASIA: The U.S. government has strongly criticized China for its restriction on religious freedom in an apparent crackdown related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In its annual report on religious freedom worldwide, the State Department says China continues to repress religious minorities, as well as deny visas to or expel foreign religious activists. Separately, a senior U.S. official (Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom John Hanford) called North Korea the worst violator of religious freedom in the world, saying the suppression of religious practice and aggressive persecution there is unparalleled.

US RELIGION SDBR - LAOS: Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom John Hanford said the situation is improved over what existed several years ago. The absence of rule of law has created problems, and there's somewhat of an arbitrary application of the law as well, particularly in certain regions, Savannakhet and Savannakhet province. There continue to be problems there. There are about 40 churches that remain closed, that were closed there. Although we're pleased that several of the closed churches had been opened this year, and so we point to that progress.

CHINA - JOURNALIST: A researcher for "The New York Times" newspaper has been released from a Chinese prison, three years after he was arrested for allegedly leaking state secrets. Friends and family greeted Zhao Yan today as he left a detention center in Beijing. The researcher was detained in 2004 after the newspaper reported the imminent retirement of then-President Jiang Zemin from his post as head of the country's armed forces. Mr. Jiang's retirement was a closely guarded secret at the time. Zhao was charged with revealing state secrets, but a Chinese court later dropped the charges because of insufficient evidence.

TAIWAN - UN: Tens of thousands of people are marching in Taiwan to support a planned referendum on the government's efforts to join the United Nations. President Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive Party is leading the rally today in the southern city of Kaohsiung. The president wants to hold a public referendum next year on whether voters support an attempt to re-enter the U.N. under the name "Taiwan." The island's main opposition Nationalist Party is holding a counter-rally in the central city of Taichung. The party is calling for an alternative referendum to ask voters whether they support the island's return to the U.N. as "Taiwan" or as the "Republic of China" - its official name.

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