- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2006

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is expressing growing concern about how quickly Iraq’s emerging security forces can take over the job of fighting insurgents, say defense sources familiar with his briefings in Washington last week.

Contrasting Gen. Casey’s latest assessments with more optimistic ones he gave early this year, the sources described him as “more sober” and “more concerned” about the progress of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The Bush administration’s opportunity to bring home troops and reduce battlefield deaths is tied directly to the ISF’s ability to assume the counterinsurgency mission.

Sources did not describe Gen. Casey’s mood as pessimistic. They say he still expresses confidence that the coalition eventually will win, but the timing is much more in doubt.

“His concern is the Iraqis are not standing up quickly enough to take this mission,” said a defense source with knowledge of Gen. Casey’s discussions in Washington. He briefed President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior leaders.

Gen. Casey predicted earlier this year that he could make substantial troop reductions from the 130,000 level at the time. But he has had to increase to 140,000 forces to counter historically high levels of violence in Baghdad since the March 2003 invasion. Generals now talk of keeping forces at that level until at least spring. The Army is making rotation plans for a large number of soldiers in Iraq, if needed, until 2010.

“The fighting is more intense than he had expected,” said the defense source. The source said Gen. Casey has expressed particular concern about setbacks in fielding a national and local police force. The Iraqi Interior Ministry was forced to take down a full police brigade because it was infiltrated with insurgents and death squad members.

Said an Army official at the Pentagon, who asked not to be named, “There is resignation that we are in this for the long haul. It’s harder to plan now because your world has been turned upside down. Soldiers are being delayed in assignments and surprised by freezes and short-fused reassignments. Families are in a pressure cooker not knowing whether stability is all but thrown out the window. The question that must be asked is how long can this pace be sustained?”

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a military analyst and a hawk on Iraq, said the past three months of intense Sunni-versus-Shi’ite violence, coupled with attacks from Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda terrorists, might be designed to influence the U.S. midterm elections on Nov. 7 in favor of candidates who want a quick troop exit from Iraq.

“This is all orchestrated around the election,” Gen. McInerney said. “It’s simple. It should come as no surprise.”

Other military analysts have said the huge increase of killings is a typical insurgent tactic. Invade key cities — in this case, Baghdad — and create mass death and chaos in an attempt to weaken the will of the coalition and dampen the U.S. public’s war support.

During a joint press conference at the Pentagon with Mr. Rumsfeld, Gen. Casey assessed the war. “I think it’s no surprise to anyone that the situation in Iraq remains difficult and complex,” he said.

He said that since the bombing of the Shi’ite Golden Dome mosque in February, “we have seen the nature of the conflict evolving from an insurgency focused against us to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis.”

He said he had been on a course in July to cut two brigades, or about 15,000 U.S. troops, but instead increased the number of troops when violence flared in the capital.

He said “whether more U.S. troops for a sustained period will get us where we’re going faster is an open question. And that’s part of the calculations that I make as I go through this.”

Gen. Casey also defended the Iraqi police in the face of persistent reports of incompetence and collusion with the enemy.

“I would also say that we continue to make progress with the Ministry of Interior and police forces,” he said. “Now, the police have a bad reputation in Iraq, and from my view, that’s undeserved. Broadly, it’s undeserved.”

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