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`Nobody knows' when Iraqis will take over security, Myers says

WASHINGTON—Iraqi army and police forces now have the lead security role in eight to 10 areas of Iraq, but it remains unclear when they'll be prepared to take over security for the entire country, the Pentagon's top military officer said Tuesday.

"It's going to take time; nobody knows," Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a Pentagon news conference. "It's event-driven. It's going to be driven by a lot of events."

Though a constitutional referendum in October and elections for a permanent government in December will represent significant political milestones for Iraq, the strategy for an eventual drawdown of the 138,000 American troops in the country hinges in large part on when Iraqi troops can take the primary role in battling insurgents. Estimates of when that might happen have varied widely in recent months.

Last March, Gen. John Abizaid, of U.S. Central Command, told Congress that he believed Iraqi forces would be able to take the lead role this year, but Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress two months later that only a "small number" of Iraq's 173,000 army and police troops were capable of battling terrorists on their own.

Myers named only two areas where Iraqis police and army had taken the lead in security—a portion of Baghdad and Diyala province in the south, a majority Shiite area where attacks on coalition forces have been rare since an uprising by radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was put down last year.

He said Iraqis were now contracting for their own food and fuel at five bases in northern and southern Iraq, a precursor to turning those areas over to Iraqi security forces.

"The reality is that a large number of them are doing exactly what it is they were organized and trained to do, and increasingly they are doing it with less and less external support from the coalition countries," Myers said.

Iraqis took part in 29 of 35 coalition operations in the previous 24 hours, he said.

Last month, U.S. Gen. George Casey, the top coalition military officer in Iraq, said that if security conditions improve, a "fairly substantial" reduction in U.S. forces could take place by the spring or summer of 2006. Casey made the remark after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to press Iraqi leaders to meet the Aug. 15 deadline for drafting the country's new constitution.

Rumsfeld said Tuesday that the strategy for an eventual U.S. drawdown remains unchanged.

"It takes time, it's going along well, and we're pleased with the progress," he said, referring to the training of Iraqi forces.

But Rumsfeld said progress in Iraq depended as well on economic and political developments. He suggested that Iraq's new constitution "could well turn out to be one of the most powerful weapons deployed against the terrorists."

Rumsfeld accused Syria and Iran of contributing to instability in Iraq by failing to police their borders. Most foreign terrorists involved in the insurgency are believed to be Sunni Muslims who slip through the porous border with Syria. But Rumsfeld said Iran was also to blame.

"It is true that weapons, clearly, unambiguously, from Iran have been found in Iraq," he said. He declined to provide further details, but suggested that the Iranians had turned a blind eye to weapons smuggling across their border.

"That's a big border," he said. "And it's notably unhelpful for the Iranians to be allowing weapons of those types to cross the border."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Richard Myers