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General sees successful future in Iraq

WASHINGTON—Despite heavy fighting in recent months, most of Iraq remains relatively stable, and the country is on track to hold elections by Jan. 30 and achieve a stable government by the end of 2005, the U.S. commander of multinational forces in Iraq said Thursday.

Gen. George Casey's assertions were among the most unequivocal to date by a senior military officer with firsthand knowledge of conditions in Iraq since the insurgency gained steam a year ago.

Casey conceded that more combat lay ahead and that opposition to the fledging Iraqi government was well organized and determined, but he said that victory was still possible.

"My view of winning is that we are broadly on track to accomplishing our objectives," said Casey, who briefed reporters on his analysis of the war nearly six months after taking command.

Casey defined victory as "a constitutionally elected government that is representative of all the Iraqi people" with Iraqi security forces providing "domestic order and denying Iraq as a safe haven for terror. And I believe we will get there by the end of December `05."

As a result of last month's military offensive in Fallujah, which he called a "liberation," the city of 300,000 is no longer a haven from which insurgents can base, plan and launch attacks against U.S. and Iraqi security forces, Casey said.

The predominantly Sunni Muslim city, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, has long been a hotbed of guerrilla activity and became a virtual no-go zone for multinational forces after a massive offensive by U.S. Marines was launched but then aborted in April.

Despite a flare-up of attacks against U.S. troops and Iraqi police in other cities across central Iraq, Casey suggested that the Fallujah offensive had significantly weakened the rebels.

However, Casey said insurgents were still capable of launching "platoon-size" attacks in the weeks leading up to the elections and beyond, especially in Sunni areas. A platoon is about 30 men.

"It's going to be hard," Casey said. The insurgents "will fight us every step of the way. But I do believe... credible elections can be held."

The general predicted that elections in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces, mostly in the north and south, "will be uneventful." Most of the people living in those provinces are Kurds and Shiites who welcomed and have generally supported the U.S. military presence.

Casey also said that those killed and wounded in Iraq have helped "25 million Iraqis build a better life and to improve the security of the United States and the coalition."

Despite allegations by the Bush administration that neighboring Iran is helping to foment violence in Iraq, Casey said he didn't believe that Iran was seeking to influence the election or the current interim government. He did describe Iran as a "long-term strategic threat" to Iraq.

While negotiations have prodded Syria to tighten its borders, some former Baathist leaders have found refuge there and still operate with relative impunity, he said

"My personal view is the Syrians are making some efforts on the border, but they're not going after the big fish, which is really the people that we're interested in," he said, without naming any former regime figures. "We're really interested in them going after the senior Baathists that are providing the direction and financing for the insurgency inside Iraq. That's what we'd like to see them do."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.