More U.S. Troops May Be Iraq-Bound

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 25, 2006

BAGHDAD, Oct. 24 -- The top American commander in Iraq said Tuesday that he may call for more troops to be sent to Baghdad, possibly by increasing the overall U.S. presence in Iraq, as rising bloodshed pushes Iraqi and American deaths to some of their highest levels of the war.

The commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., also said he now believed Iraqi forces would be ready to take over security responsibility from the Americans no sooner than late 2007 or early 2008. The announcement of a 12- to 18-month target again pushes back the withdrawal of the bulk of the 145,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq.

Casey spoke alongside U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad at a rare joint news conference in Baghdad's Green Zone, aiming to show that U.S. and Iraqi leaders were confronting surging sectarian violence. Both men acknowledged that both the course and nature of the war have changed this year, as Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni minority battle for power, resources and, lately, survival.

"Make no mistake about it: We are in a tough fight here in the center of the country and in Anbar province," Casey said, emphasizing that the worst of the bloodletting was in Baghdad.

"This is not a country that is awash in sectarian violence," Casey said. "The situation's hard, but it's not a country that's awash in sectarian violence."

Casey said later that any additional troops for Baghdad could come from a variety of sources, including from the Iraqi military, from U.S. forces elsewhere in Iraq or from outside the theater.

Khalilzad framed the Iraqi conflict as part of the struggle for security in the Middle East, which he called "the challenge of our age." He sought to rally flagging public support in the United States for the war and answer calls -- led by Democrats -- to set a timeline for American withdrawal.

"The recent sectarian bloodshed in Iraq causes many to question whether the United States and the Iraqis can succeed," Khalilzad said. "My message today is straightforward: Despite the difficult challenges we face, success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable."

But events inside and outside the Green Zone on Tuesday highlighted the stubbornness of the basic problems with which U.S. forces have struggled since the 2003 invasion: security and infrastructure. Killings by insurgents in the western province of Anbar helped push up the October death toll among American troops in Iraq by four service members to 91, the U.S. military said Tuesday, the highest monthly total for American forces in the country in 12 months.

And Casey and Khalilzad, the top U.S. military and civilian leaders in Iraq, were left for several minutes to deliver their remarks in darkness illuminated only by the battery-powered lights of TV camera crews. One of Baghdad's frequent power outages cut electricity to the converted parking garage that houses the U.S. military press center, briefly knocking the internationally broadcast conference off the air.

For Casey and his predecessors, the question of whether President Bush dedicated enough troops to the Iraq war has been one of those most frequently asked -- and hotly debated. While Casey has raised troop strength temporarily as high as 150,000 for Iraqi national elections, his stock answer has been that if he felt additional troops were needed, he would ask for them.

On Tuesday, Casey said he might ask for them. If Iraqi leaders can resolve their differences and if Iraqi security forces improve, "I think [we] can put Iraq in a very good place in 12 months.

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