BAGHDAD, Iraq—Three car bombs detonated nearly simultaneously just north of Baghdad, killing at least 62 people Thursday as an American commander told members of Congress in Washington that only one Iraqi battalion was able to operate independent of U.S. forces.
The report of Iraqi troop readiness by Army Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, surprised the Senate Armed Services Committee since Casey had told Congress in June that three battalions were combat ready.
"It is ... discouraging to hear today that there is only one Iraqi battalion that is fully capable," said Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine. "It doesn't feel like progress."
A battalion comprises about 300 men.
After the car bomb attacks, local police officers relied on American forces to secure Balad, a largely Shiite city located about 50 miles north of Baghdad.
In addition, five Americans were killed in Ramadi by a car bomb, according to a military statement. The soldiers were assigned to the 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force. Names were withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Casey was joined before the Senate committee by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command. Republican and Democratic senators alike questioned whether U.S. plans could succeed to draw down forces as Iraqi troops are trained.
Casey appeared to retreat from his June assertion that a "fairly substantial" reduction in the 149,000 U.S. troops in Iraq could begin next year. Thursday, he said reductions were a "possibility," depending on conditions after an Oct. 15 referendum on a new constitution and December elections for a new national parliament.
Two senior Republicans, John McCain of Arizona and Collins, expressed deep concern about whether Iraqi security forces could take over from U.S. forces.
"There's one fundamental problem with it (the strategy), and that is whether the Iraqis are capable of carrying out their own military responsibilities," said McCain. "General Casey, you're taking a very big gamble here. I hope you're correct. I don't see the indicators yet that we are ready to plan or begin troop withdrawals given the overall security situation, and that isn't just my opinion alone."
Training Iraqi security forces to defend their country without American logistics and other help—an effort that began about two years ago—is a central pillar of what President Bush described on Wednesday as the "strategy for victory."
Rumsfeld, Casey, Abizaid, and Myers, who was to retire on Friday, all insisted that progress was being made in training and equipping Iraqi forces.
"We are fighting with them side by side on a daily basis, improving their capabilities day by day," Casey said. "We are measuring this very carefully, and we're not going forward with this capriciously."
Casey gave no specific reasons for the drop in the number of Iraqi units rated as "fully capable"—those that can operate without American backup—saying "things change in the battalions ... there are a lot of variables that are involved here."
Collins noted that this kind of disclosure "contributes to a loss of public confidence."
The first car bomb in Balad detonated around 6:45 p.m., near Balad's police headquarters, which sits in the middle of downtown. When it detonated, it killed not only officers, but also nearby shoppers, witnesses there said.
The streets were particularly crowded Thursday because many residents were shopping for Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week, said Maj. Fareed Saleh, a Tikrit police officer who was visiting Balad when the attacks occurred. Most of those killed in the first attack were civilians, Saleh said.
As police officers—including Balad Police Chief Kadhim Abdul Razzaq—began tending to the victims, a second car bomb detonated near the first spot. Razzaq was seriously injured in that attack, police said. The third car bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque 10 minutes after that.
Sgt. Abbas Ali, of the Balad Police Department, said many families immediately grabbed the bodies of their dead loved ones, making it difficult for officials to tally how many were killed.
Ali said he expect the total to increase. At least 100 were injured, he said.
"It's chaos inside the city," he added.
American forces cordoned the city after the attacks and issued a curfew, Saleh said.
While Balad itself is Shiite, its outskirts are mainly Sunni and U.S. forces have recently led military offensives in parts of those outlining areas.
(Landay reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy in Baghdad and Hassan al Jubouri in Tikrit contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.