U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declined Wednesday to endorse a prediction made earlier in the day by Iraq's president that Iraqi forces will "take over security" for the entire country by the end of the year.
At a news conference, Secretary Rumsfeld was asked whether President Jalal Talabani was being too optimistic when he said Iraqi forces will have the leading role and security responsibility for the entire country by the end of the year.
"The hope of the Iraqis, the hope of the Americans, the hope of the troops is that the Iraqis will continue to take over responsibility for the security in their country, and that over time we'll be able to draw down our forces as conditions permit," said Mr. Rumsfeld. "Beyond that, I'm not going to go."
Earlier, a Pentagon spokesman said there are "too many variables" to make a firm prediction about the security situation in Iraq at the end of the year.
Those variables include the strength of the Iraqi insurgency, which has pressed an offensive in recent months aimed mainly at Iraqi civilians. The offensive has resulted in a decision to hold one U.S. combat brigade in Iraq for up to four months beyond its scheduled one-year deployment, and to call in an additional U.S. reserve brigade from Kuwait.
Secretary Rumsfeld said Iraq is experiencing what he called "a high level of sectarian violence." He said the insurgents are trying to convince Americans to end their involvement in the country.
"They're waging a psychological war of attrition, designing their attacks to gain maximum media coverage and maximum public outcry, hoping to get free people to give in to the extremists," he added. "They want us to believe that perseverance is futile rather than necessary."
U.S. officials including President Bush have frequently said the United States will not be intimidated into withdrawing its forces from Iraq, and will keep them there until democracy is firmly established and Iraq's own forces can maintain order.
Commanders and officials use various terms to describe the progress of Iraqi forces. They speak of Iraqi units fighting "side-by-side" with U.S. and other coalition troops. That generally means the foreign troops have the main role in an operation, with the Iraqis in the fight but in supporting or parallel roles. When the officials speak of Iraqi troops being 'in the lead' in some areas, that means the Iraqis take the front positions in an operation with coalition forces in support.
And the officials also speak of Iraqi troops "taking security responsibility" in some areas. That means the Iraqis are not only "in the lead" but also planning operations and generally directing security efforts in a particular area. But even then, coalition advisers work with them, and foreign forces are there too, or nearby, for support and reinforcement, and to provide heavy weapons, air power and other key services.
In his statement Wednesday in Baghdad, President Talabani used two of those terms, saying Iraqi forces will "take over security" for all the country's provinces by the end of the year, and also that they will "take the lead" throughout the country.
The Pentagon says Iraqi forces have already taken responsibility for security in large areas of the country, including part of Baghdad. But in a VOA interview on Tuesday, a U.S. marine colonel involved in training Iraqi troops predicted it will be "years" before the Iraqis can operate without any foreign troops to help.