updated 12/16/2005 3:02:00 PM ET 2005-12-16T20:02:00

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Friday that he will make recommendations in the next few weeks about additional troop withdrawals from Iraq, and he expects troop levels to drop back to what has been the average level of 138,000 by early February.

Speaking from Iraq, Gen. George Casey told Pentagon reporters that by late next fall, the Iraqi military should be able to largely take the lead in the country’s defense, with continued support from U.S. and coalition transition teams. Iraqi police forces, he said, are lagging behind that, and would be able to take charge of internal security by late next year or early 2007.

“We just had the election, we’re doing our assessments, and I’ll make some recommendations in the coming weeks here about whether I think its prudent to go below that baseline,” said Casey, adding that the two extra battalions that were sent to Iraq for election security will be heading home in January.

Coming on the heels of what U.S. officials have touted as a successful parliamentary election in Iraq Thursday, Casey tempered his comments saying he expects insurgents to escalate their attacks to demonstrate they “are still strong and a factor to be reckoned with.”

“We should not expect the insurgency to just go away because of yesterday’s great success,” he said. “But we should expect it to be gradually weakened and reduced as more and more Iraqis adopt the political process and the root causes of the insurgency are addressed by the new Iraqi government and by the coalition.”

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