It could be five years before Iraqi forces can guarantee security and allow U.S.-led coalition troops to wind down their role, a leading think tank said Tuesday.
The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (search) said bringing peace to Iraq will depend on its interim government taking control of security and winning public confidence.
"It is essential that Iraqi security forces become the primary instrument of law and order," the institute said in its annual publication, "The Military Balance."
The institute's director, John Chipman, also addressed the issue of terrorism at a news conference, saying that while the United States remains a top target for Al Qaeda, Europe may be at a higher risk of attack because of weaker security and its proximity to the Middle East.
The report highlighted efforts to build up Iraqi government forces, but said the task was still in a very early stage. It will take some time before Iraqi forces are ready to take the lead in controlling Iraq and defeating insurgents, it added.
The report said that U.S.-trained government forces currently number 36,000.
"It may take five years for them to obtain the aptitude necessary to guarantee stability," the report said.
Asked when U.S. and other coalition troops would be able to leave, Christopher Langton (search), editor of the publication, said that will depend on training Iraqi forces and the speed with which they could take over security.
"That will determine how long the U.S. forces will have to be there," Langton said.
Langton noted that the British government, the second-largest contributor of coalition forces, has said its troops could stay until at least the end of 2006. He said there were not enough coalition troops in Iraq to ensure security, adding to the need to build up Iraqi government forces.
Success in Iraq is not assured, Chipman said.
"The outcome of the U.S.-led international effort to bring stability to the country is far from certain as the most powerful military power in the world struggles with a multifaceted insurgency," he said.
The study said U.S. commanders are trying to create stability and clear the way for January elections by using air and artillery attacks to hit insurgents, while Iraqi authorities offer talks and aid to insurgents who abandon their struggle.
Iraqi officials need to build up the civil administration to help restore peace, it added.
"The elections, if handled in an efficient and transparent manner and accompanied by the imposition of order, could play a crucial part in this process," it said.
The report also said that up to 1,000 foreign fighters had infiltrated Iraq and were working alongside Sunni Muslims loyal to ousted leader Saddam Hussein to target U.S. troops.
"The substantially exposed U.S. military deployment in Iraq presents Al Qaeda with perhaps its most attractive 'iconic' target outside U.S. territory," the report said.
The institute estimated that there are 18,000 potential terrorists plus many more sympathizers around the world. Both that estimate and the figure for foreign fighters inside Iraq are unchanged from last year's report.
The institute is considered the most important security think tank outside the United States.