In a rare appearance in Washington, General George Casey offered an optimistic but cautious assessment of the situation in Iraq, where he commands more than 140,000 U.S. and coalition troops.
"We're actually a little further along than I thought we would be at this point," he said when he briefed reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
The general said the Iraqi insurgency is still capable of launching devastating attacks, but he says it is weaker than it was a few months ago thanks to continuing offensive operations by his troops and the new Iraqi army and police.
"In general terms, they are falling off and not effective," he said. "We took a look at the election attacks, because we said, 'the elections ought to tell us something about the strength of the enemy.' Well, we saw about 300 attacks [and] maybe 70 percent of those were ineffective."
General Casey says the insurgents launch between 50 and 60 attacks every day, but try to carry out three or four times as many. He says the insurgents are more often resorting to relatively ineffective methods, such as drive-by shootings and by firing weapons from far away. The general says the coalition has reduced the insurgency's effectiveness by capturing or killing a large number of what he described as "second tier" leaders.
But he also says military action alone will not defeat the insurgency.
"That's not something that we're going to defeat militarily," General Casey said. "The people that are supporting and doing these attacks are going to hopefully be drawn into the political process. And that will take some of the air out of the insurgency. So it's a combination of the political, the military, the economic and the communications that's ultimately going to defeat this."
General Casey says the January 30 election helped in that process, but he was not willing to endorse comments made by other commanders that the election was a 'tipping point' in the fight for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
"I do believe that the elections were a major step forward," he said. "Now, whether it's a tipping point or not, you said that, I didn't. I'm not ready to say that."
General Casey says Iraq's military and police forces are continuing to work toward the day they can take full responsibility for the country's security, but he would give no timetable. He says only a few Iraqi battalions are capable of independent operations, and the coalition is making a big push this year to expand that significantly.