US commanders spell out timeline for Iraqi transition

Times Online October 24, 2006

US commanders spell out timeline for Iraqi transition
By Sam Knight

The top US military commander in Iraq and the powerful American ambassador to the country gave a rare joint briefing in Baghdad today to stress that control of the country was transferring to Iraqis and that the future lay largely in local hands.

The briefing, coming two weeks before the congressional mid-term elections in America, in which the Iraq war has emerged as the defining issue, sought to clarify the US mission in the country and put forward a timeline of political developments that Washington expects Iraqi leaders to achieve within the next 12 months.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq who is regarded as the key dealmaker in Iraqi politics, and General George Casey both said that the war had evolved from an insurgency directed against the US-led occupation to a more complicated, sectarian conflict which it was up to Iraqis to solve.

General Casey said the bombing of al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra in January this year and subsequent explosion of internecine violence between Sunnis and Shias had ushered in a "much more complex environment and one that will be resolved primarily by Iraqis with our full support".

He said the complete control of Iraq by Iraqi security forces should be completed within the next 12 to 18 months.

Mr Khalilzad referred to several steps that he expected Iraqi leaders to achieve in the coming months: the reform of the Iraqi security ministry; a "national compact" to tackle sectarian violence; the passing of laws to control militias and the future of Iraq'a oil industry; a change from the purging of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to a goal of reconciliation; the elimination of death squads and the holding of provincial elections.

He listed the so-called "benchmarks" 48 hours after The New York Times reported that the Bush Administration was drafting a timetable with Iraqi officials of targets that Washington expected the Iraqi Government to achieve. The newspaper reported that the White House "would consider changes in military strategy and other steps if Iraq balked at the benchmarks or failed to meet the most critical timetables".

"Iraq leaders have agreed to a timeline for making the hard decisions needed to reolve these issues," said Mr Khalilzad today. "We are helping Iraqi leaders complete a national compact... Political forces must make difficult decisions in the coming weeks to reach agreements on numbers of oustanding issues on which Iraqis differ."

General Casey, meanwhile, focused on the changing face of the violence in the country and the rising capabilities of the new US-trained Iraqi army and police units. He said that Iraqi battalions were increasingly taking the lead in operations and that 90 per cent of all violence in Iraq was concentrated in 5 of the country's 18 provinces.

"The situation is hard but this is not a country awash with sectarian violence," he said.

General Casey conceded that US may need to commit more rather than fewer troops to calming Baghdad — where more than 100 people die every day in gun and bomb attacks — in the coming months, but he stressed that the overall trend was towards handing over Iraq's security to its new army, which he described as three quarters of the way to readiness.

"We are about 75 per cent of the way through a three-step process in building those forces. It is going to take another 12 to 18 months or so till I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsiblity for their own security —and that will still be coupled with some level of support from us," he said.

Today's briefing largely struck a chord with the changing rhetoric about the war in Washington — US newspapers reported today that President Bush has stopped using the phrase "stay the course" when describing America's strategy — but there was one note of discord with recent ideas suggested by American politicians.

In recent weeks, the notion of inviting Syria and Iran to help resolve the sectarian crisis in Iraq has been mooted in Washington — reportedly by James Baker, the former US Secretary of State and Bush family friend who is heading the bipartisan "Iraq Study Group" which is expected to suggest a new direction for the war after the midterm elections.

The idea has the reported backing of the British Foreign Office and the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani. But General Casey and Mr Khalilzad both spoke disparagingly of Syria and Iran today, accusing the countries of being "decidedly unhelpful" and "historic enemies" of Iraq respectively.

Mr Khalilzad accused Damascus and Tehran of "cynically supporting" violent groups in Iraq. Instead, he said the US had sought and received agreement from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — all largely Sunni Muslim countries — to intercede in the sectarian violence.
# American soldiers sealed off the Karrada neighbourhood of Baghdad today with helicopters and road blocks in the search for a missing military translator who was abducted yesterday evening.

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