Iraq at least a year from handover

U.S. expects to oversee security perhaps until '08

August 31, 2006|By Louise Roug and Julian E. Barnes | Louise Roug and Julian E. Barnes,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi security forces will need another year to 18 months before they can take over from American troops, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., said yesterday.

The assessment, which came on a day when at least 78 people were killed or found dead across Iraq, drove home a growing realization that U.S. troops will stay longer and in greater numbers in Iraq than once anticipated by ground commanders and the Bush administration.

"I don't have a date, but I can see over the next 12 to 18 months the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country, with very little coalition support," Casey told reporters in Baghdad.

He would not commit to a U.S. drawdown after that date, saying it depended on the security situation in the country.

"We'll adjust that as we go," Casey said, referring to U.S. troop levels in the country. "But a lot of that - in fact, the future coalition presence, 12 to 18 months from now - is going to be decided by the Iraqi government."

Last year, Casey said "significant" troop withdrawals could take place soon after the Iraqi elections that December. Casey and other top commanders said at the time that they were prepared to recommend a drawdown of 30,000 troops by the spring, if the election and training of security forces went well.

The start of reductions was delayed by an outbreak of civil warfare, but Casey said in May that his "general timeline" was still on track. In June, Casey predicted "gradual reductions" in U.S. troop levels over the next year. But by last month, generals began shelving plans for troop cuts this year and ordered extensions of combat tours as violence worsened.

Many experts in Washington read Casey's comments as code for when the U.S. would be able to begin drawing down its forces. Retired Gen. William Nash, who led U.S. Army forces in Bosnia, said that given the amount of time the U.S. has spent training the Iraqi military, Casey's timeline is reasonable.

"My point is: By God, I hope we would be getting close by then," Nash said.

This week, the U.S. military called in airstrikes to support besieged Iraqi soldiers fighting Shiite militias in a vicious 12-hour street battle in the southern city of Diwaniya. At least 100 troops in an Iraqi battalion balked at fighting their co-religionists and refused to deploy to the battle, an act their British trainers have called a mutiny.

Casey said that confidence in the security forces is key to dismantling the militias. But the Iraqi government has taken few concrete steps to disarm or dismantle them, and militia members have infiltrated the security forces, where they have been accused of forming death squads.

About 8,000 U.S. troops and 3,000 Iraqi soldiers have flooded sections of the capital, including several that had been turned over to Iraqi forces this spring. Military officials say the increased patrols and searches have lowered Baghdad's record homicide rate, which soared to 1,800 last month.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pointed to the drop in the homicide rate as evidence of "an atmosphere of reconciliation" in an interview with CNN on Sunday.

But the week that followed showed little reconciliation, and August is ending on a bloody note. Since Sunday, at least 317 people have been killed countrywide - 126 of them in the capital.

Yesterday, the worst of the violence again hit civilians in and around the capital.

Just after 7 a.m., a bomb exploded near an Iraqi army recruitment center in the Shiite-dominated city of Hilla, south of the capital, ripping through an ice cream shack. At least 13 people were killed in the explosion, according to Kadhim Jafari, a Hilla hospital official.

Ali Adbdelhassan, 28, was having breakfast when the force of the explosion sent furniture flying in his apartment. He walked outside, where he found severed limbs and torn bodies. Among the wounded were his 8-year-old niece, Shaima, and his nephew, 2-year-old Hussein, both burned in the explosion, he said.

A few hours later in the capital, a bomb tore through a busy wholesale market shortly before 10 a.m., killing at least 24 people and injuring another 35, police said.

Forty minutes after the market bombing, two bombs exploded near a gas station about two miles away, killing two civilians and a policeman who was trapped inside his car, according to authorities.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, gunmen shot and killed a manager at the Ministry of Justice, her driver and bodyguard. Near a rug factory, gunmen shot and killed three people on a bus in western Baghdad.

A U.S. Marine assigned to 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division died Tuesday from wounds sustained during operations in Anbar province, the military said yesterday.

Sixteen bodies were found in two Baghdad neighborhoods, most showing signs of torture. Another five bodies were found floating in the Tigris River about 30 miles south of the capital.

Near Baqubah, a roadside bomb killed five people, including three women and a child, while further north in Kirkuk three people were killed and 14 injured in an explosion on a bus.

In the western city of Qaim on the Syrian border, police discovered the bodies of two men who had been tortured and shot, according to Ayman Saleh, a police officer in the city. He said the men had been kidnapped three days earlier. In Fallujah, another kidnap victim was found murdered, police said. In Samawa, one person was killed when rejected recruits clashed with Iraqi soldiers.

Louise Roug and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.

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