WASHINGTON – It will take up to two years for the Iraqi army to have the military leadership and supplies it needs to operate on its own, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad (search) said Friday.
Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr (search)., told Pentagon (search) reporters that the Iraqi security forces are continuing to grow, but their major need is for support systems, such as fuel and replacement parts.
"If we're talking about an army that can pick up and move and go out to the borders to defend the country and be able to sustain operations out in the open for a long period of time, it's probably going to be a year and a half, two years before that system is mature enough to operate on its own," Webster said from Baghdad.
Webster did not specify what impact his assessment would have on U.S. hopes for beginning a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Earlier this year, U.S. military officials said they thought they could begin fairly substantial troop withdrawals next spring. But amid ongoing questions about the Iraqi army's training, they have since scaled back that prediction, saying some troop reductions are possible in 2006 but that any withdrawal will be based on conditions in Iraq.
"It's hard to pick a date for sending everybody home because the enemy gets a vote as to when that occurs," said Webster. "We have got to make sure the Iraqi government is capable of standing on its own and that the Iraqi security forces are capable of defending that new constitution."
Webster said the Iraqi government must provide systems for supplying its army, and the U.S. is working with them on that. In addition, he said the U.S. is helping the Iraqi army train front line supervisors on leadership and discipline.
He said that while there is a long way to go to get the rest of the Iraqi security forces able to work on their own, they have about 18 battalions now operating in Baghdad with some U.S. support, compared to one battalion in the oldest portion of the city last January.
Gen. George Casey (search), the top U.S. commander in Iraq raised some eyebrows in Congress recently when he disclosed that only one Iraqi army battalion was ready to go into combat without U.S. support.
A few months ago, three battalions were thought to have that capability. Casey said he was not certain why the number fell from three to one but it might be linked to a shake up in battalion leaders.
There are now about 149,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Violence escalated just before the recent elections on the constitution, but has dropped off again, Webster said.