Iraq war may need soldiers and time

Iraqi forces 12-18 months from being fully capable, Baghdad not yet secure, top U.S. commander says

October 25, 2006|By Louise Roug | Louise Roug,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The top U.S. military commander in Iraq said yesterday that more American troops might be needed in the capital to quell raging sectarian violence.

Gen. George W. Casey, speaking at a rare news conference with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, also reiterated that it will take longer than previously thought for Iraqi troops to take the lead in providing adequate security across the nation.

"It's going to take another 12 to 18 months or so till I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security," Casey said, repeating the estimate he made more than a month ago.

The news conference was another in a series of appearances by military commanders and Bush administration officials trying to counter increasingly negative perceptions of the Iraq conflict as violence has escalated and U.S. casualties have risen to the highest rate this year, weeks before a crucial midterm congressional election.

In Washington, President Bush's national security adviser said Iraqis have made progress but must work more quickly to end violence and ensure stability.

"I think they have to do more, and they've got to do it faster," Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview with National Public Radio.

Hadley added that it was unlikely that Iraq would stabilize before the end of Bush's term in 2008, even though it is "moving toward" democracy.

"Is there going to be peace? Is it going to be the end of any violence? Of course not. This violence is going to go on for a long time," Hadley said. "It takes a long time for these things to get completely out of the system."

During October, U.S. and Iraqi forces have come under increased attacks, with at least 90 U.S. troops killed in the highest American monthly death toll this year. About 300 Iraqi troops have been killed during the holy month of Ramadan, Casey said. Most of the U.S. and Iraqi casualties have been in Baghdad.

The war in Iraq is a central issue in the Nov. 7 election, and the Bush administration has been keen to play down any shift in Iraq policy. At the same time, Bush has dropped the refrain that the United States will "stay the course" in Iraq, White House press secretary Tony Snow confirmed Monday.

Last week, Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell described the continuing violence in Baghdad as "disheartening," and suggested that the military is recasting its strategy.

In the past, U.S. military officials have described the strategy in Baghdad as "clear, hold and build."

While the U.S. military is able to clear neighborhoods of insurgents, holding and building have proved more problematic.

"Do we need more troops to do that? Maybe," Casey said. "If we do, I'll ask for the troops we need, both coalition and Iraqis."

There are now 147,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Casey had initially projected a significant reduction in force this year. But he said yesterday that it had become clear by late June that Iraqi security forces were not as prepared as he had hoped.

Critics of the Bush administration said yesterday that a change is needed in U.S. strategy, rather than in the estimate of the time needed to train Iraqi troops.

"There is no reason to think that doing the same old, same old for another 18 months will produce any different results than it has the past 3 1/2 years," said Rand Beers, a former staff member on Bush's National Security Council who resigned before the Iraq war.

At a Pentagon news conference yesterday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that Casey's assessment might be viewed as a further delay. But he added that such evaluations must be made as part of a continual re-evaluation of the capabilities of Iraqi forces.

"He's making fresh assessments each time," Pace said.

During yesterday's news conference, the U.S. ambassador emphasized a political timetable, saying that the Iraqi government has agreed to begin resolving fundamental disputes through a "national compact."

Iraqi politicians differ on key issues, including revenue sharing, de-Baathification and disarming militias and insurgents.

"Iraqi officials have agreed to a timeline for making these difficult decisions," Khalilzad said, without giving specifics.

It was also unclear what would happen if Iraqi politicians fail to meet the timeline referred to by Khalilzad.

As Khalilzad was taking a question about whether the U.S. mission in Iraq has failed, the power went out at the news conference held inside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone. Khalilzad continued to speak in the dark but was inaudible without the microphones.

For the past year, Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have been pushing to disarm the mainly Shiite Muslim militias and resolve the conflict over oil revenues. Iraqi politicians have created numerous committees and reconciliation initiatives but have made little measurable progress.

Pace, at his news conference, said U.S. and Iraqi officials had not agreed on specific timetables for issues such as disbanding militias and distributing oil revenues. But he said U.S. officials were continuing to work with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to set up such goals.

"Having a window where you have a target date, where you commit to your own citizens ... that you will either have attained these goals or you'll explain why you haven't attained them, I think, is a very good thing to do," Pace said.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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