The American commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, General George Casey, says after Sunday's landmark elections in the country, the U.S. military will focus much of its efforts on training Iraqi security forces to take over security duties from U.S. troops.
During an informal interview with about a dozen reporters, General Casey was asked to estimate a possible time frame for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq.
The commanding general, who oversees 150,000 American troops in Iraq, says with the insurgency showing no signs of easing in the short term, he does not expect the American military to pull out of the country in any significant numbers for many more months.
"The short answer is not in the immediate term," Gen. Casey said. "We do not know how the elections are going to come out. We do not even know what government is going to come in. So, it is going to take some time for that to filter out.
I think the most important aspect of that, though, is that all the senior Iraqis I have talked to understand that for the new Iraq to succeed, it needs to be inclusive," he added. "That will have an impact on the security situation. So, in the short term, no big impact. What will have an impact over the mid-term is bringing the Iraqi security forces to a level that they can take on pieces of Iraq by themselves and operate independently."
To counter an insurgency that is increasingly seen by U.S. commanders as almost impossible to defeat militarily, General Casey says greater emphasis is being put on better recruiting and training more than 300,000 Iraqi military and police personnel to take over the country's security.
The commander notes that there has been significant progress in rebuilding Iraq's army, which U.S. authorities disbanded after the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in April, 2003. There are now 40 battalions as part of eight Iraqi army divisions across the country.
General Casey acknowledges that huge question marks remain for the army, as well as for local police, about how well they can perform their duties. Iraqi security forces have yet to prove that they are capable of defending against major attacks by themselves, especially in insurgent hotspots such as Baghdad and Mosul.
To boost their capabilities, the U.S. military has begun embedding trainers and advisors among Iraqi forces to live and work with Iraqis on a daily basis. General Casey predicts that the embedding process will increase substantially in the months ahead.
"What we have today is the coalition forces in front, leading the counter-insurgency effort, and Iraqi forces in support. And what we want to do, and what the Iraqis want to do over the next year or so," he explained, " is to reverse that, where the Iraqis are in the front leading the effort and the coalition forces are behind. And we think we can do that. We are developing some plans here, after the elections, to look at putting advisory teams on an increased basis with Iraqi security forces, one to instill confidence in them, but two to enhance their organizational effectiveness.
General Casey says he believes about 130,000 Iraqi troops are more than prepared to take the lead in securing polling sites across the country on Sunday. To avoid the perception that the United States is trying to influence Iraq's landmark elections, American troops on election day will not be at the polling sites and will only back up Iraqi forces if needed.
Several Sunni-Arab militant groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq led by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have declared war on the elections, vowing to attack voting centers on Sunday and warning Sunnis to boycott the elections. Zarqawi has described the balloting as a plot by Washington and Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims to humiliate Sunni Arabs, who were dominant during Saddam Hussein's rule, but now fear being marginalized.
In a campaign of intimidation in the run-up to elections, Sunni militants have killed scores of police, political candidates, and election workers, mostly in the central, northern and western areas of the country where many Sunni people live.