U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top general in Iraq tried to clarify Friday a statement the general made on Thursday that appeared to indicate a decline in the capability of Iraq's new security forces. The secretary and the general said the Iraqi forces are improving every day, although only one unit is capable of operating without help from coalition forces.

General George Casey told Congress on Thursday that just one Iraqi battalion is capable of operating independently, but that many other units are fighting alongside coalition forces, and some are able to take leading positions on the battlefield. But he had previously said three Iraqi units were able to operate on their own, leading many in Congress to believe that the Iraqi force's capability is deteriorating.

The general said Friday that is not correct. He said the change in the rating of the Iraqi units was based partly on changes in the way they are evaluated. He also said the readiness of individual units goes up and down in any army. He said he is pleased at the progress of many Iraqi units, and for now is not concerned about how many can function without coalition help.

"The fact that there's only one or three units, that is not necessarily important to me right now," he said. "Next year at this time I'll be much more concerned about it. Right now, I'm not."

Even though he says the Iraqi forces are improving, General Casey predicted it will be months before many more Iraqi units can operate on their own, and perhaps two years before he will be able to remove the U.S. training teams that are embedded in all the Iraqi military units, even the operationally independent ones.

At the same news conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressed some exasperation that there has been so much attention on the question of whether one or three Iraqi units are at the highest level of readiness. "There are an awful lot of people chasing the wrong rabbit here, it seems to me. The idea that the country could get fixated on one and three battalions out of 100 is really unfortunate because it totally misses what's important and the big picture," he said.

Mr. Rumsfeld said the "big picture" includes the fact that about 80 per cent of coalition military activities have at least one Iraqi unit involved, and the Iraqis are taking the lead in many missions. "What's important is that every day the number of Iraqi security forces are getting bigger, and they're getting better and they're getting more experienced, and, General Casey can tell you, they are doing more," he said.

The secretary and the general also described the war in Iraq as a test of wills between the insurgents on one side and the people of Iraq, the United States and their allies on the other. General Casey said the insurgents are trying to break the allies' will by carrying out dramatic attacks that give the impression that they are winning, and he says the effort is having some impact in the United States, a point the secretary agreed with.

"They are trying to create the impression that we and the Iraqis cannot succeed in Iraq. And, what do you think? Is it having an effect, an impression back here at home, the levels of violence? I think it is," the general said.

Mr. Rumsfeld added "I think there's no question that what the general says is correct. They're focusing on public opinion in the United States. They're trying to do things that are dramatic and affect that. They can't win a battle. They can't win a war out in the field. The only place they can win is in a test of wills, if people say the cost is too high and the time is too long."

There have been demonstrations against the war across the country in recent weeks, but President Bush has repeatedly said he will not pull U.S. troops out of Iraq until the Iraqi forces and government are ready to take control.