BAGHDAD—The top American commander in Iraq yesterday said U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces were still not ready to take over the counterinsurgency and there was no guarantee they will ever be able to defeat the militants on their own.
Gen. George Casey said the 130,000 Iraqi police and soldiers still lack leaders to direct them in a fight against rebels, and local police forces who've deserted in the thousands in the face of intimidation and withering assaults by guerrillas remain a key weak point.
Training and equipping Iraqi troops to eventually take the lead role here is a central pillar in U.S. efforts to rein in insurgents and eventually pull American and other foreign troops out of the country. But the Iraqi forces have been criticized for poor training and lack of leadership.
"Can I sit here and look you in the eye and say that the Iraqi security forces guaranteed 100 per cent (they) are going to be able to defeat this insurgency by themselves? Of course not," Casey said.
"From what I've seen in the seven months that I've been here, I believe that we can achieve capable Iraqi security forces over a period of time that can deal with the Iraqi insurgency that's here."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in an interview published yesterday that U.S.-led coalition forces and Iraqi officials will begin discussing the handover of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces after Sunday's national elections.
Blair did not set out a clear timetable for the transfer, telling the Financial Times the move would come only when Iraqi forces are up to the job.
But he said the U.S.-led coalition was "looking with the Iraqis now at what are the timelines for the Iraqi-ization to be achieved."
After the election, "we have got to sit down with the new government and look at how we manage the transition," Blair was quoted as saying. "There are areas where we would be able to hand over to those Iraqi forces. Remember, 14 out of the 18 provinces in Iraq are relatively peaceful and stable."
The elections will be a key test, as Iraqi troops take the commanding role in efforts to secure the vote. Insurgents have pledged to shower polling stations with mortar fire, car bombs and gunfire in an effort to derail the election for a 275-member national assembly.
"There's going to be violence on election day, but millions of Iraqis are going to vote on Jan. 30, and to me that's extremely significant. You're going to see the continued triumph of democracy over tyranny," Casey told reporters in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.
Casey, who commands all multinational forces in Iraq, said that after the election U.S. trainers and advisers will work more closely with Iraqi forces, focusing on building senior division and brigade level leadership.
"The weak pole in the tent right now is the local police," Casey acknowledged.
In November, a 5,000-member police force in the northern city of Mosul fled their posts as fighting swept the city.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press