President Jalal Talabani said Wednesday that Iraqi forces will take over security of the whole country by the end of the year. But an aide said the president was referring to "the process" of handing over the security and not the actual transfer.

Talabani's statement provided the most optimistic timetable for the takeover by Iraqi forces, which at present are responsible for policing only one of Iraq's 18 provinces. The rest are in the hands of the U.S.-led multinational forces.

"We are highly optimistic that we will terminate terrorism in this year... the multinational forces' role is a supportive one and the Iraqi forces will take over security in all Iraqi provinces by the end of this year gradually and God's will, we will take the lead," Talabani told reporters.

CountryWatch: Iraq

His comments were greeted with skepticism given the highly unstable security situation in the country because of the sectarian fighting between Shiites and Sunnis, and general lawlessness.

But Hiwa Osman, the media adviser to Talabani, said the president had meant to say something different.

"What he meant is that the process will be under way by the end of this year, and it's been repeatedly said in the past that it's a process," said Osman, stressing that the hand-over will happen gradually.

"We are not expecting a complete hand-over by the end of this year — nobody really is," said Osman. "But looking at Iraq, there are parts that are ready to be handed over to the Iraqis completely, like the three Kurdish provinces in the north."

Much of the recent sectarian violence has occurred in the capital Baghdad, and many lawmakers have called for replacing the interior minister over the government's inability to stop the almost daily bombings, drive-by shootings and executions after abductions.

The U.S. military is moving at least 3,700 soldiers from Mosul to Baghdad and is gearing up for a new security operation to wrest control of the capital from Shiite militias, Sunni insurgents, kidnap gangs, rogue police and freelance gunmen.

In Washington, the Pentagon also injected a note of uncertainty about Talabani's timetable.

"I would hope that he is correct," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told Pentagon reporters Wednesday.

"The Iraqi Security Forces are making great progress. Every week, every month, they get more capable," he said.

"So that's one of those things that time will tell," Whitman said. "And there's too many variables for me to — with any sort of certainty — make those kinds of predictions."

A top Iraqi security official also said the hand-over by the end of the year is unlikely.

"I am optimistic that by the end of 2006 we could be handed over Baghdad. As for the rest of the provinces, we will be working on that," said Maj. Gen. Adnan Thabit, head of the Interior Ministry special forces.