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Pentagon: Coming Elections Critical to US Future in Iraq

Senior U.S. generals expressed the hope Thursday that they will be able to begin reducing the number of foreign troops in Iraq next year, but they emphasized that any decisions will depend on the situation on the ground, and that the next couple of months will be critical.

The top two generals in charge of the U.S. military effort in Iraq faced questioning by committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Some senators criticized the effort, saying there is no clear strategy to achieve U.S. goals and withdraw the forces. Democratic Party Senator Carl Levin pressed the coalition commander in Iraq, General George Casey, on a question about when there might be some reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq.

"Condition-based reductions of coalition forces is a critical element of our strategy...And we certainly do look to do that over the course of next year," the general said. When asked if he is projecting conditions for a reduction would would exist next spring, General Casey said "the next 75 days are going to be critical in what happens after that. And so I'd like to wait until we get through this political process here to give you a better assessment of that."

Previously, General Casey predicted the beginning of substantial reductions in U.S. forces in Iraq in the early part of next year. But on Thursday he gave members of Congress a long explanation of the factors that will go into any decision, including the strength of the insurgency, the capability of the Iraqi forces and the ability of the Iraqi government to support those forces.

Some senators expressed concern when he indicated that just one Iraqi army battalion is fully capable of independent operations because he had reported there were three such battalions a few months ago. The general responded that the readiness levels go up and down based on a variety of factors, but that overall more and more Iraqi forces are rising to at least the second level of readiness, which means they can take the lead in operations, with support from coalition forces.

General Casey rejected claims by some members that the effort to bring stability to Iraq is foundering. "There are a lot of mistakes in war. The key is whether or not you can learn from your mistakes. And I think, in balance, we've done pretty damn good," he said.

General Casey and his boss, Central Command chief General John Abizaid, expressed concern about the outcome of Iraq's coming constitutional referendum, and the ability of Iraqi politicians and civil servants to build an effective government after the election scheduled for December. The generals are concerned about the possible alienation of Iraq's Sunni minority, many of whom oppose the constitution. And General Abizaid called for some changes in how the U.S. government is organized to make it more effective at building democracy abroad.

"It is important, I think, in closing, Mr. Chairman, that we recognize the global threat that al-Qaida presents to the United States and to the civilized nations of the world. We are not yet organized to the extent that we need to be to fight this enemy, with coordinated and synchronized international and inter-agency action. We have time to do that, but we need to seize the moment and do it now," he said.

Because of that concern, the U.S. Defense Department is taking over the training of Iraq's Ministries of Defense and Interior -- a mission that had belonged to the State Department.