- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq set a timeline yesterday of 18 months for the Iraqi security forces to take over war operations in all the country’s provinces “with some level of support from us.”

Army Gen. George Casey did not commit to a timeline for removing 147,000 U.S. troops, as House Democratic leaders have demanded and as President Bush has resisted. But achieving Gen. Casey’s new benchmark would assuredly mean a smaller American force in Iraq, where about 2,800 U.S. service members have died since the March 2003 invasion. Iraqi forces now control operations in just two of 18 provinces.

At the same Baghdad press conference, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has agreed to a series of benchmarks for reaching a “national compact” within 12 months to end Sunni-Shi’ite violence and equitably divide the country’s wealth.

Mr. Khalilzad said Mr. al-Maliki also has agreed to come up with a plan for controlling various militias, such as the Mahdi Army of firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, by year’s end. But Mr. Khalilzad offered no specifics on how Mr. al-Maliki will accomplish a task he has so far resisted.

“Iraqi leaders must step up to achieve key political and security milestones on which they have agreed,” he said. “The prime minister has a timeline of developing a plan by the end of the year, and we support that.”

The joint press conference capped a week of intensified rhetoric on Iraq as the Bush administration urges the al-Maliki government to move faster to take over security chores and let U.S. forces go home.

Pressed by Democrats and some Republicans to change course as more than 90 U.S. troops have died in Iraq this month, Mr. Bush telephoned Mr. al-Maliki last week to convey a sense of urgency. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared last week Iraq must take over more security missions “sooner rather than later.”

Gen. Casey, who boosted U.S. troop levels in Iraq from 132,000 to 147,000 in the face of war breaking out in Baghdad, offered no concrete assurances that yesterday’s announced plan would result in reductions. He said his forces face a “fundamental change” in the enemy from a year ago. Added to the al Qaeda suicide bombers and Iraqi Sunni insurgents is an outgrowth of armed groups under no one’s central control who roam the Baghdad area killing civilians.

Gen. Casey’s chief spokesman declared last week that a huge influx of security forces into Baghdad the past three months had failed to reduce violence. Gen. Casey took a different view yesterday.

“The Baghdad security plan continues to have a dampening effect on sectarian violence,” he said. “The situation is hard, but it’s not a country that’s awash in sectarian violence.”

There are today more than 300,000 Iraqis security forces. The military says six of 10 army divisions are “in the lead,” which means they can conduct operations on their own but need U.S. support.

Mr. Khalilzad predicted that by November 2007 he will have a “national compact in place” that better defines the division of oil wealth among Sunnis, majority Shi’ites and Kurds. The compact also would include changes to the ongoing “de-Ba’athification” program to promote reconciliation among some of Saddam Hussein’s old party members.

Two other parts of the overall plan are to induce Iraqi political leaders to get armed groups in Baghdad to disarm, and have moderate neighboring states to persuade Sunni leaders to end their insurgency.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California was not impressed.

“General Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, confirmed this morning that staying the course — no matter what slogan this administration chooses to attach to it — means it will be another 12 to 18 months before the Iraqis will be able to provide security for their country,” the Democrat said. “With the war in Iraq now more than 3 years old, Iraq engulfed in chaos, and U.S. casualties continuing to mount, this is simply unacceptable.”

The general made his announcement after a Saturday teleconference from Baghdad with Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld and other leaders. His announcement is the closest the administration has come to setting a timetable without changing overall war strategy, as critics demand.

Gen. Casey got advice yesterday from House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter of California and 32 other House Republicans. In a letter to Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld, they urged the two to order more Iraqi battalions into Baghdad.

“Combat experience is gained by one thing — combat,” the letter said. “There is no reason why Iraqi military forces currently deployed in relatively quiet regions of Iraq should not immediately be sent to the fight in Baghdad.”

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