The top U.S. general in Iraq said Wednesday he believes Iraqi forces can take over security with little coalition support within a year to 18 months.
“I don’t have a date, but I can see over the next 12 to 18 months, the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country, with very little coalition support,” Gen. George Casey said in Baghdad.
That takeover would not mean U.S. troops leaving immediately. It is part of a U.S. military plan to hand over responsibilities, move into large bases and provide support while Iraqis take the lead. A U.S. drawdown would start after that occurred.
Although the United States has made its strategy public, U.S. officials rarely mention dates or details.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has already said that Iraqi army and police plan to take over security for all of Iraq’s provinces within the next 18 months.
“We have been on a three-step process to help build the Iraqi security forces,” Casey told a small group of reporters.
He said the first was training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, the second was to “put them in the lead, still with our support.”
“And when they’re in the lead, they’re responsible for the areas, and we still help them. That process is almost 75 percent complete,” he said.
Casey added that the last step “is get them to the stage where they independently provide security in Iraq.”
That, according to Casey, would include building logistics, intelligence, medical support and other elements that “that can support and sustain the armed forces in place for a longer period of time.”
He said Iraqi forces were about “75 percent of the way toward the second step, toward completing the second step. There’s still more work to do for them to become independent.”
He added that “they’re going to continue to get better within the next 12 to 18 months. And they will still, during that process, ... have our support and our substantial presence here to assist them.”
'Not sure yet' on withdrawal
Asked if Iraqi forces were capable of taking over after the 12 to 18 months, allowing U.S.-led Coalition forces to withdraw, Casey said that depended on the situation on the ground.
“I’m not sure yet,” Casey said of the Iraqi security capability. “And we’ll adjust that as we go. But a lot of that, in fact the future coalition presence, 12-18 months from now, is going to be decided by the Iraqi government.”
Casey said the U.S. was troubled by incident involving clashes between the Iraqi army and Shiite militias, and the looting last week of a British base in the south that had been turned over to the Iraqis.
The clashes took place Monday between the 8th Iraqi army division and Shiite militiamen in Diwaniyah and led to the deaths of 23 soldiers and 50 gunmen.