President Bush's top security advisor says Iraq's military has made significant improvements and is taking more responsibility in securing the war-torn country.
In a televised interview late Friday on the CBS television network, U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said Iraqi forces have been able to assume responsibility for securing more territory over the past several months.
He said U.S. troop strength has already come down from about 160,000 soldiers during Iraq's elections last December to a little over 130,000 troops now. He said Iraq's improved readiness has allowed the U.S. military to focus on other tasks besides combat.
"As we train the Iraqi security forces, as they take greater responsibility for security, we will be able to step back to a training activity and to going after terrorists and be able to both change the composition [of the U.S. troops] and reduce the number of those forces," said Stephen Hadley.
Earlier Friday, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli, said Iraqi units, with U.S. support, can now be used in almost all counterinsurgency operations, such as the offensive going on near Samarra. He estimated that Iraq's improved forces could take control of three-quarters of the country in the next six months.
Stephen Hadley said the general's assessment is a message to the American people of the progress being made in Iraq.
"Whether it's 75 by this summer or 75 percent by the end of the year we will have to see. But the point is, it is the objective," he said. "We are making progress. We are, every month, at this point been able to turn over more territory to the Iraqis."
Pentagon leaders have pegged future U.S. troop withdrawals to the ability of Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for security.
But U.S. officials say much also depends on the ability of Iraq's political leaders to overcome their differences and govern the fractious nation. Three months after national elections, Iraq's new parliament has been sworn in, but its members are still deadlocked over the formation of a new government.
Hadley said he is optimistic the Iraqis will rise to the occasion.
Despite the reports of progress, American casualties continue to mount. The U.S. military says two American soldiers were killed and another wounded in an insurgent attack Thursday northwest of Tikrit.
The deaths came as U.S. and Iraqi troops are sweeping through northern Iraq between Tikrit and Samarra in a major operation searching for insurgents.