Iraqi security forces will need an additional year to 18 months before they can take over from American troops, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., said Wednesday.
The assessment, which came on a day when at least 79 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 American 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 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 following year. But by last month, generals began shelving plans for troop cuts this year and instead ordered extensions of combat tours as violence worsened.
Retired Maj. Gen. William Nash, who led U.S. Army forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said that given the amount of time the U.S. already had spent training the Iraqi military, Casey’s timeline was reasonable.
“My point is: By God, I hope we would be getting close by then,” Nash said.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he had been told that keeping the current force beyond 18 months would be difficult for the military.
“Gen. Casey is saying what everyone in the military knows,” Biden said. “We cannot sustain 134,000 troops in Iraq. I think everyone in the military knows these guys are stretched.”
This week, the U.S. military called in airstrikes to support besieged Iraqi soldiers fighting Shiite militia members in a fierce 12-hour street battle in the southern city of Diwaniya.
Casey said that confidence in the security forces was key to dismantling the militias. But the Iraqi government has taken few concrete steps to disarm or dismantle them, and their 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 the number of killings in Baghdad, which soared to more than 1,800 in July.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki touted 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 now ending on a bloody note. Since Sunday, at least 317 people have been killed nationwide, 126 of them in the capital.
On Wednesday, 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 Hillah, south of Baghdad, ripping through an ice cream shack.
At least 13 people were killed, said Kadhim Jafari, a Hillah hospital official.
Ali Abdelhassan, 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 of whom suffered burns, he said.
A few hours later, a bomb tore through a busy wholesale market in the capital, killing at least 24 people and injuring 35, police said.
Forty minutes after the market blast, two bombs exploded near a gas station about two miles away, killing two civilians and a policeman who was trapped in his car, authorities said.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, gunmen shot and killed a manager at the Justice Ministry, her driver and her bodyguard. Near a rug factory, gunmen shot and killed three people on a bus in western Baghdad.
A U.S. Marine assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division died Tuesday of wounds sustained during operations in Al Anbar province, the military said Wednesday.
Sixteen bodies were found in two Baghdad neighborhoods, most showing signs of torture. Five other 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 farther 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, said Ayman Saleh, a local policeman. He said the men had been kidnapped three days earlier. In Fallouja, a kidnapping victim was found slain, police said. In Samawah, one person was killed when rejected recruits clashed with Iraqi soldiers.
Roug reported from Baghdad and Barnes from Washington. Times staff writers Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf contributed to this report.