BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi security forces will need another year to 18 months before they can take over from American troops, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., said Wednesday.
The assessment, which came on a day when at least 78 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 U.S. 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 the 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 troops cuts this year and instead ordered extensions of combat tours as violence worsened.
Many experts in Washington read Casey’s comments as code for when the U.S. would be able to begin drawing down its forces. Retired Gen. William Nash, who led U.S. Army forces in Bosnia, said that given the amount of time the U.S. already has spent training the Iraqi military, Casey’s time line is reasonable.
“My point is, by God, I hope we would be getting close by then,” Nash said.
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 Hilla, south of the capital, ripping through an ice cream shack. At least 13 people were killed in the explosion, according to Kadhim Jafari, a Hilla hospital official.
A few hours later in the capital, a bomb tore through a busy wholesale market shortly before 10 a.m., killing at least 24 people and injuring another 35, police said.
Forty minutes after the market bombing, two bombs exploded near a gas station about two miles away, killing two civilians and a policeman who was trapped inside his car, according to authorities.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, gunmen shot and killed a manager at the Ministry of Justice, her driver and bodyguard. Near a rug factory, gunmen shot and killed three people on a bus in western Baghdad.