Gen. Casey optimistic over Iraqi forces’ ability to assume control within 18 months; violence kills 66 in Iraq |

Gen. Casey optimistic over Iraqi forces’ ability to assume control within 18 months; violence kills 66 in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The top U.S. commander in Iraq expressed optimism Wednesday that Iraqi forces are making enough progress to provide their own security within 18 months. But violence showed no sign of abating, with 66 people killed nationwide, including 24 in a Baghdad market bombing.The U.S. military also reported Wednesday that a Marine was killed in action the day before in the volatile western Anbar province.Gen. George Casey said Iraqi troops were on course to take over security control from U.S.-led coalition forces, a move that would bring the foreign forces a step closer to withdrawal from the country.”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,” he said.That takeover would not mean U.S. troops leaving immediately. It is part of a U.S. military plan to hand over responsibilities, move into large bases and provide support while Iraqis take the lead. A U.S. drawdown would start after that occurred.His comments came even as violence surged in the capital and elsewhere, undercutting claims by U.S. and Iraqi officials that a Baghdad security crackdown has lowered Sunni-Shiite killings, which had risen in June and July.On Monday, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell said the murder rate in Baghdad had fallen by 46 percent from July to August and “we are actually seeing progress out there.” That figure could not be independently confirmed.U.S. officials attributed the fall in sectarian killings to a major security crackdown launched Aug. 7. About 8,000 U.S. troops and 3,000 Iraqi soldiers were sent to the capital to search homes systematically and patrol the streets.Similar operations have curbed violence for limited periods of time in the past, only to have killings flare again once American forces left.A bomb struck one of Baghdad’s largest market areas, where food, clothing and household goods are sold, killing at least 24 people and wounding 35, police said.In Hillah, 60 miles south of the capital, a man posing as a potential army cadet left a bomb-laden bicycle outside a recruiting center, killing 12 people, police said. Insurgents often target Iraqi army and police recruits as a way to discourage volunteers.Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed a family of five in Buhriz, 35 miles north of the capital, when a roadside bomb struck their car. Bombings and shootings elsewhere in the country killed another 25 people, according to police.Ten bodies also were found – five dumped in Suwayrah, 25 miles south of Baghdad, and the others in the capital.Still, Casey said he was optimistic about security in Iraq and he said an operation to crack down on violence in the capital was producing results – although more needed to be done.”I’m pleased with the progress to date, but we have a long way to go,” Casey said. “And we’re not going to let up until we get where we’re going and bring security to the neighborhoods of Baghdad.”Asked if Iraqi forces were capable of taking over completely after the 12 to 18 month period, allowing U.S.-led coalition forces to withdraw, Casey said that would depend on the situation at that time.”I’m not sure yet,” he said of the Iraqi security capability. “And we’ll adjust that as we go. 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.”The coalition has been training and equipping Iraqi forces, and Casey said they are now “75 percent” along the path of being able to operate alone.”There’s still more work to do for them to become independent,” he said, adding that “during that process, they will still have our support and our substantial presence here to assist them.”Casey also said the U.S. was troubled by an incident in which Iraqi soldiers in the south mutinied and refused to be deployed to Baghdad for a massive security operation under way in the capital, and by the looting last week of a base that British forces had turned over to Iraqi authorities.This week’s bloodshed included some of the fiercest fighting in months between the Iraqi army and Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Monday’s battle in the town of Diwaniyah left 73 people dead – 50 militia and 23 soldiers, the prime minister has said.Al-Sadr led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 but later emerged as a major political figure. His influence has gradually been increasing in Shiite-dominated Diwaniyah, although he appeared to distance himself from Monday’s fighting, describing it during a meeting in Najaf as “individual acts.”Casey said disarming militias was essential.”The primary threats to Iraq’s security are the terrorists and the death squads. And both of those threats have to be addressed if Iraq is going to progress,” he said.—-Associated Press reporters Qais al-Bashir, Sinan Salaheddin, Rebecca Santana and Patrick Quinn contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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