BAGHDAD, Iraq—The top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq said Tuesday that they'd won agreement from the Iraqi government to set a timetable to tackle some of the country's most intractable problems.
Army Gen. George Casey, the commander of American forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad provided no details of their discussions with Iraqi officials and no hard deadlines. Casey estimated that Iraqi troops would be able to assume security responsibilities in 18 months, but that wasn't new: He'd made a similar prediction in a television interview in August.
The news conference came amid growing pressure in the United States for the Bush administration to rethink its Iraq policies. Polls show that Iraq is the No. 1 concern for voters two weeks before the congressional elections, and even Republican candidates are critical of American policies there.
President Bush has stressed that he remains flexible in responding to events in Iraq. He had a teleconference Saturday with Casey, Khalilzad, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that Bush had stopped using the phrase "stay the course" because it left the impression that the administration wasn't adjusting its strategy.
Against that backdrop, Casey and Khalilzad's appearance together was widely anticipated. The two last made a joint appearance in June to announce the death of al Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
The news Tuesday was hardly of similar import. In Washington, Republicans generally ignored the comments, while Democrats denounced them as more of the same. Bush made no effort to draw attention to the remarks while campaigning for Republican candidates in Florida, and Cheney didn't mention them in an interview with conservative commentator Sean Hannity.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told National Public Radio, "We're not making the progress we would like, and that's why we have to look at what we are doing and see what we need to change to get the kind of progress that we need."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said his expectations were low. "We've been hearing White House promises to turn things over to the Iraqi forces for years—in 2006, in 2005, in 2004, in 2003—but nothing ever seems to change," he said. "I don't think the American people are going to take it very seriously."
As if to emphasize how difficult things are in Iraq, the electricity failed briefly during the news conference, a reminder that most of Iraq receives no more than six hours of electricity a day.
Khalilzad and Casey said the Iraqi government had agreed to draft a plan to tackle the problems that were threatening to tear the nation apart. They didn't say what would happen if it didn't or give a specific date for when the work should be completed.
Khalilzad called for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his government to implement a "plan to address militias and death squads" and "increase the credibility and capability of Iraqi forces."
He didn't spell out how Maliki—who won his post with the support of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army, the militia group blamed for most of the sectarian violence—could meet that goal. He said Maliki had assured him that he would.
"I am relying on the prime minister for what I said, which is that he has agreed to getting rid of the militias, that those who are unauthorized to carry weapons need to be dealt with, that he supports the government and the political process, and we just need to test that with implementation," the ambassador said.
Khalilzad said that as part of the agreement, the government should set a date for provincial elections. Rumsfeld said the same thing a week ago. "They're going to have to have some provincial elections, for example, at some point," the defense secretary said.
Casey's prediction that Iraqi forces will be able to fully secure Iraq with "some level" of American help in the next 12 to 18 months also echoed previous remarks. In August, he told CBS: "I can see over the next 12-18 months, I can see the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country with very little coalition support."
Casey also said 300 Iraqis had been killed in clashes with death squads and insurgents since the Muslim observation of Ramadan started a month ago.
He said U.S. forces would finish training 135,000 Iraqi police officers by the end of the year. He said he was holding open to the possibility of bringing more American troops into the country but that he'd prefer to train Iraqis. "We need to get out of their way," he said.
Casey said that recent reports of violence were exaggerated. He said 90 percent of the country's violence occurred within 30 miles of the center of the capital and that other areas were peaceful. "The country is not awash with violence," he said.
He provided no statistics to back up his 90 percent claim and didn't mention recent violence well beyond 30 miles of the capital, including ongoing pitched battles between Shiite and Sunni Muslim residents of the northern city of Balad and between rival Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Amarah.
The U.S. military announced the deaths of four more American soldiers Tuesday, bringing U.S. deaths in Iraq so far this month to 91. With 87 of those from hostile fire, October already is the bloodiest month for U.S. combat deaths since November 2004.
American officials provided more details about the disappearance Monday of a U.S. soldier of Iraqi descent. They said the soldier had left Baghdad's fortified Green Zone to visit his family. His family reported that three cars pulled up in front of the house he was visiting at about 7:30 p.m. and gunmen kidnapped him, the officials said. The family later received a call from the soldier's cell phone.
On Tuesday, the American military closed off most of the central Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada to search for the soldier, raiding a television station and a mosque, without success.
(McClatchy correspondent Ron Hutcheson and researcher Tish Wells contributed to this report from Washington; McClatchy correspondent Jay Price contributed from Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.