Fewer Iraqi troops ready

Officials cautious about a pullout of U.S. forces in '06


WASHINGTON -- Top U.S. military commanders said yesterday that the number of highly trained Iraqi army units capable of operating independently actually declined from three to one in the past few months and played down the likelihood of a withdrawal of U.S. troops next year.

Gen. George W. Casey testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee with other senior military leaders on the same day three car bombs exploded in the city of Balad, north of Baghdad, killing at least 60 people. Separately, the U.S. military announced that a roadside bomb had killed five Americans.

Casey, the top ground commander in Iraq, said earlier this year that he expected "some fairly substantial reductions" in U.S. forces in Iraq in 2006. His deputy, amplifying on those remarks, estimated that 20,000 U.S. troops could be withdrawn by next spring, with further cuts later in the year.

But yesterday, Casey and his colleagues were more cautious in their predictions. Instead of substantial withdrawals in the spring, Casey said only that there is a "possibility" that "reductions of coalition forces still exist in 2006."

There are now about 138,000 American troops in Iraq, a number that is expected to grow by 2,000 to beef up security before the end of the year.

Iraq will vote on a new constitution in about two weeks and is scheduled to hold nationwide elections in December.

"The next 75 days are going to be critical in what happens after that," Casey told the senators. He gave no hint of the number of troops that could be withdrawn in 2006.

Last month, President Bush dismissed talk of an American troop drawdown as "rumor" and "speculation," despite the public comments of Army officers, and cautioned that such a discussion would embolden the insurgents and impede the creation of an Iraqi government.

Both Republican and Democratic senators told the general yesterday they were concerned by the slow pace of U.S. training for Iraqi security forces and the continued inability of Iraqi ethnic groups to forge a political partnership.

Casey said that there are more than 6,000 police officers, double the number from last year, and that there are 100 Iraqi Army and special police battalions operating with U.S. forces. A battalion has about 600 soldiers.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona wanted to know how many of the Iraqi Army battalions were fully trained and equipped at the top level, meaning they have the ability to operate independent of U.S. forces. McCain said the Pentagon reported in June that three Iraqi Army battalions were at this level.

"The number now is, if you're talking about level-1 trained, it's one," said Gen. John Abizaid, the top American officer in the region, who appeared before the committee with Casey and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"Now we've gone from three to one?" asked McCain.

"It doesn't feel like progress when we hear today that we have only one Iraqi battalion that is fully capable," said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Casey replied that "things change in battalions," such as equipment problems, personnel changes or other issues. But he provided no specific details about the two battalions whose status was downgraded.

He insisted that, overall, the Iraqi security forces have increased "quantitatively and qualitatively over the past year."

Iraq still lacks the infrastructure necessary to support a military and it's "going to be a while" before the country can achieve that goal, said Casey, who offered no specific timeline.

But the general said American troops have trained more than 30 Iraqi Army battalions that are at the next level of readiness, meaning they can lead combat operations with some U.S. assistance. Another 55 Iraqi Army battalions are still receiving training.

"I don't see the indicators yet that we are ready to plan or begin troop withdrawals given the overall security situation," McCain said. "And that just isn't my opinion alone."

Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said he was troubled by reports that insurgents are infiltrating Iraq's security forces, citing one estimate that 5 percent of Iraqi government troops are secretly insurgents.

"Are the insurgents benefiting from our military training and then using inside knowledge to ambush and kill our soldiers, and even using our weapons to do it?" asked Kennedy.

Casey said infiltration is "more problematic" with the Iraqi police, who are recruited locally, while soldiers are recruited nationally. He acknowledged that the system of screening recruits "is not a failsafe process, for sure."

That exchange prompted Rumsfeld to interject: "It's a problem that's faced by police forces in every major city in our country, that criminals infiltrate and sign up to join the police force."

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, later challenged Rumsfeld, asking if he was implying that every U.S. police department is infiltrated by criminals.

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