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    US Officials: Iraqi Forces Improving, But Coalition to Stay

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    U.S. defense officials say the Iraqi defense forces are dramatically improving their capabilities, but that does not necessarily mean coalition forces will be leaving the country anytime soon. 

    The commander of coalition forces in northern and central Iraq, U.S. Major General John Batiste, says Iraqi forces are building their capabilities as planned in spite of an increasing number of attacks on them.

    "Every day, the Iraqi army, police and department of border enforcement demonstrate their ability to carry out their mission, while relying less and less on their coalition partners,” he said.

    Defense Department spokesman Lawrence Di Rita says that is true throughout Iraq, but he says it does not necessarily mean foreign forces will be leaving the country soon.

    "It's not timeline-dependent, it's situation-dependent,” Mr. Di Rita added.  “And as the commanders assess the progress of Iraqi security forces, they'll make recommendations on force levels."

    Mr. Di Rita says there is no timeline for the departure of coalition forces.  And officials note that there are factors to consider beyond the readiness of Iraqi forces, including the strength of the insurgency.

    Speaking from Iraq on Thursday, General Batiste was lavish in his praise for Iraqi forces in the four northern and central provinces where he commands coalition forces.  He says they are conducting more independent operations, continuing training and adding to their numbers every day. 

    The general is particularly impressed by the Iraqi troops' reaction to the growing number of attacks on their colleagues.

    "They have killed some number of brave Iraqis,” he noted.  “The incredible thing is though that these soldiers, these great soldiers in the battalions in the four brigades in the fourth division are undeterred.  Their resolve is incredible.  And I know that because I spend a lot of time with them."

    General Batiste told of one instance when Iraqi troops attended the funeral of some of their colleagues one morning, and then went directly to resume their training.  He said there is no shortage of Iraqis volunteering for the security forces.

    The Pentagon spokesman, Mr. Di Rita, confirmed on Thursday that a high-level team has arrived in Iraq to assess the progress of the Iraqi forces.  The team is led by a retired general, and is to make recommendations on improving the preparation of the Iraqi forces.  The official says the team will be in Iraq for about two weeks.

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