NEW YORK -- The United States needs to reduce its forces in Iraq by ''at least 100,000" by the end of 2006, sending a message to the Middle East that Americans are not interested in maintaining a permanent military presence in that country, Senator John F. Kerry said yesterday.
In a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, the former Democratic presidential contender said the goal should be to have a force of 30,000 to 40,000 in Iraq by the end of next year.
''As General (George) Casey told Congress, our large military presence 'feeds the notion of occupation' and 'extends the amount of time that it will take for Iraqi security forces to become self-reliant,' " Kerry said. ''That's why we need to focus all of our energies on making 2006 the year in which we turn over that struggle to our partners within Iraq."
Kerry cautioned, however, that troop withdrawal should be linked to a timetable ''set by a series of benchmarks of accomplishment."
Kerry had previously said 20,000 troops should leave Iraq following next week's elections, but yesterday's comments appear to be the first in which he has set a specific target for the end of 2006.
''For all their rhetoric about democracy, human rights, the hateful ideology of our adversaries, and international coalitions against terrorism, the president and his advisers have shown time and again that they really do conceive the war on terror as almost exclusively a military operation," Kerry said of the Bush administration.