U.S. officials said Tuesday Iraqi forces should be able to take full control of security in the country in the next 12 to 18 months with "some level" of American support, and Iraq's leaders have agreed to produce a timeline for making "hard decisions" to ensure progress in stabilizing Iraq.
"We are about 75 percent of the way through a three-step process in building those (Iraqi) forces," Gen. George Casey said at a joint news conference alongside U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad's Green Zone.
"It is going to take another 12 to 18 months or so 'til I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security that's still coupled with some level of support from us," said Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Casey said he felt the United States should continue to focus on drawing down American forces in the country, adding that he would not hesitate to ask for more troops if he felt they were necessary.
With violence in Iraq at staggering levels, the United States is battling on both the military and political fronts to tame growing chaos in regions where Sunni insurgent violence now is compounded by sectarian killing.
Khalilzad said the Iraqi government had agreed to develop a timeline by the end of the year for meeting goals such as dearming the militias and devising a system to share the country's oil wealth among all religious and ethnic groups.
"Iraqi leaders must step up to achieve key political and security milestones on which they've agreed," Khalilzad said.
His comments came a day after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. government and military officials were working with Iraq to set broad time frames for when Iraqis can take over 16 provinces that are still under the control of U.S. troops. He said officials were not talking about penalizing the Iraqis if they don't hit certain benchmarks.
The Iraqis have taken control of two southern provinces but have been slow to take the lead in others, particularly those around Baghdad and in the volatile regions north and west of the capital city.
Khalilzad said the government should transform the committee that was formed to ensure that Saddam Hussein's loyalists held no important national positions into an organization that would seek to entice them back to the political process.
That was seen as a bow to the Sunni insurgency. Sunnis comprise a minority of the population in mostly Shiite Iraq but were dominant under Saddam's regime.
"We are helping Iraqi leaders complete a national compact. ...Political forces must make difficult decisions in the coming weeks to reach agreements on numbers of outstanding issues on which Iraqis differ," Khalilzad said.
Casey and Khalilzad castigated Iran and Syria, Iraq's neighbors east and west, for trying to undermine the American effort to stabilize the country, with Casey saying both countries had been "decidedly unhelpful."
Khalilzad said radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had agreed through Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to U.S. demands that the government develop a timeline that would include the eradication of militias.
Al-Sadr controls the Mahdi Army, the country's most feared band of armed men, largely drawn from the downtrodden, poor and unemployed in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite slum enclave.
The U.S. ambassador said the United States was engaging with insurgent leaders, trying to persuade them to lay down their weapons and join the political process. He also announced the Americans had sought and received agreement from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan — all largely Sunni Muslim countries — to intercede with the insurgency.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.