The coalition commander in Iraq says several factors should result in a lesser role for U.S. forces in the country during the coming year, if Iraqi politicians establish a broad-based government and begin to address the people's concerns. The general spoke via satellite to reporters at the Pentagon, and he said favorable trends include divisions in the insurgency, the continuing development of Iraq's security forces and the beginning of help from Syria.

General George Casey says U.S. troop strength in Iraq should return to its baseline of about 138,000 around the end of January. It has been increased to more than 150,000 to help provide security for October's constitutional referendum and Thursday's parliamentary election. But the general says he is not yet ready to discuss any force reduction below the usual 138,000 level.

"We just had the elections. We're doing our assessments, and I'll make some recommendations in the coming weeks here about whether I think it's prudent to go below the baseline," he noted.

General Casey said he expects Iraqi forces to continue increasing their role in security operations by leading more missions, with coalition forces only in advisory and support roles, such as providing air transport and being ready to send additional troops to help if needed.

"As we look at the readiness projections coming up from our transition teams and the Iraqi commanders, we expect that process to continue through the summer and into the latter part of this year [2006]," he added.

General Casey reported that Iraqi forces were involved in some way in 88 percent of all coalition security operations in November (1500 of 1700). He says Iraq's police forces will eventually have most of the responsibility for domestic security, but he says the police will not be ready to take that responsibility until late 2006 or early 2007.

The general says Iraq's security situation is also being impacted by what he calls "tension" among insurgent groups, pitting the foreign-led al-Qaida movement against Iraqi Sunni groups. He says in the western town of Ramadi, the Iraqis forced the foreigners to allow people to vote on Thursday.

"Al-Qaida insurgents in the area tried to stop the local people of Ramadi from participating in the election process," said General Casey. "Other insurgent groups came together and frustrated al-Qaida in Iraq's attempt to halt those elections."

General Casey says it is too early to talk of a turning point in the effort to fight the insurgency, but he says the military has made gains, and Iraqi politicians now have the opportunity to have a huge impact on the insurgency if they establish a broad-based government. The government will likely be led by Shiite Muslim parties, but General Casey says he hopes they include Sunni parties in a way that gives their supporters hope that their concerns will be addressed.

"That is the one thing that I think will really help pull this this country together in short order," said General Casey.

He says that would ease the Iraqi Sunni part of the insurgency, but he does not expect the Sunni insurgents, or politicians, to completely reject violence.

"What you'll see is folks trying to play, use both means to achieve their ends, not renouncing violence totally, but also working within the political process," he continued. "It'll be a much more complicated situation."

General Casey also indicated that Syria appears to have taken some action to limit the flow of foreign insurgents through its territory into Iraq. This is the first time a senior U.S. official has had anything good to say about Syrian efforts in that regard. General Casey says there are indications of a few instances in which Syria blocked insurgent movements, but he would like to see more such help.

The general also said Iran continues to try to influence events in Iraq by investing money in Iraqi political parties, especially in southern Iraq. And he said he expects Iran to try to influence the makeup of the new Iraqi government - a situation he called worrisome and challenging.