In spite of the further delay in forming a new Iraqi government Friday, the second-ranking officer in the U.S.-led Iraq coalition says he expects a reduction in foreign forces to begin soon. British Lieutenant General Robert Fry spoke from Baghdad to reporters at the Pentagon.
General Fry says the formation of the new government, which is expected by the end of next week at the latest, will create a fundamental change in the situation in Iraq. And he believes that will help create the conditions for the expected start of the drawdown of foreign troops.
"I would have thought that this is a process that could start in the pretty near future," he said. "I also think it is a process that the incoming Iraqi government would be extremely keen to see under way in order that it can demonstrate its own sovereignty in its own country."
General Fry says from a slow beginning, the withdrawal should accelerate over the next two years.
"The big challenge, I think, in the future is the way in which we finally hand over the planning for and the conduct and the command of this campaign to the Iraqis. And we will draw down finally once that process is complete," he added.
The general was asked how long that might take.
"It could be a long time," he explained. "I think that what we've got to do is be the midwives of the first part of the change here, but we don't have to see that whole process through. All we have to do is be here at the beginning of the process, ensure that they get a good start, and then allow them to get on with it by themselves."
General Fry would not give any numbers or dates for the start of a troop reduction, but his boss, U.S. General George Casey, has said he hopes to make recommendations on troop reductions by the middle of June. He has already delayed the deployment of one brigade of U.S. troops, which could start a reduction if the unit that brigade was to replace leaves as scheduled several weeks from now.
On Friday, General Fry also acknowledged there has been an upsurge in violence in Iraq in recent weeks, particularly in Baghdad, which he attributed mainly to foreign elements in the Iraqi insurgency, particularly the al-Qaida terrorist network.
"We are about to enter a phase here which is likely to be decisive in terms of the political transformation of this country. The opposition knows this just as well as we do, and therefore, this is an event that they are likely to contest," he noted.
U.S. officials have said the strength of the insurgency is one factor that will determine future foreign troop levels, along with the development of the Iraqi government and security forces. General Fry says the Iraqi army is doing well at the individual and small unit level, but he says there is still work to do to coordinate the activities of larger units and to ensure that they are properly commanded and supplied. And he says the Iraqi police still need training in a variety of skills needed to deal with ordinary crimes.
The British general also said he believes the new Iraqi government will try to deal with the country's many private militias through negotiations. He said the militias cannot be allowed to continue operating on their own. But he said there is a long process of consultation ahead before any military action against the militias should be contemplated.