Iraq's leaders and military will be unable to lead the fight against insurgents until next summer at the earliest, a top U.S. military official said Wednesday, trying to temper any hopes that a full-scale American troop withdrawal was imminent as Iraq moves toward elections scheduled for December.
Both Americans and Iraqis need "to start thinking about and talking about what it's really going to be like in Iraq after elections," said the military official, who spoke in an interview on the condition he not be named. "I think the important point is there's not going to be a fundamental change."
The official stressed that it was "important to calibrate expectations post-elections. I've been saying to folks: You're still going to have an insurgency, you're still going to have a dilapidated infrastructure, you're still going to have decades of developmental problems both on the economic and the political side."
U.S. military officials in Iraq said last month that it might be possible to withdraw 20,000 to 30,000 of the 138,000 American troops by next spring if Iraqi civilian leaders managed to meet deadlines for drafting a new constitution and holding elections.
On Wednesday, the military official said a significant spring withdrawal was "still possible." But while primary military responsibility for some parts of Iraq could likely be handed over even before the elections, the official said, U.S. forces would have to play a lead role in fighting the insurgency for at least a year. Even if a new government is elected on time in December, "the earliest they're going to be capable of running a counterinsurgency campaign is . . . next summer," the official said.
The warnings came on a day when the U.S. military reported five service members killed in action. In addition, a U.S. citizen in Iraq was kidnapped and released, a U.S. official confirmed, and a car bomb in Baghdad killed four Iraqi civilians and three policemen.
Meeting in Baghdad, leaders of Iraq's factions reported no immediate progress on the key issues -- such as how much autonomy regions should have -- blocking agreement on a new constitution, with the deadline for the draft's approval just five days away.
"The constitution should be written in time. It is in our benefit to have one word to agree on," urged Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, whose government faces possible dissolution under current accords if drafters miss the Monday deadline.
The existing timeline calls for a national vote on the constitution on Oct. 15, to be followed by elections for a full-term government on Dec. 15. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pushed Iraqis again this week to finish the draft constitution on time, after citing rising U.S. combat fatalities.
In Baghdad, the U.S. military official sought to tamp down any hopes that political progress would immediately improve security.
The Iraqi government's opponents "certainly are not going to pack up and go away, there's no doubt about it," he said. Instead, he suggested, insurgent attacks are likely to surge as Iraq's new constitution and government take shape.
If "you're a terrorist or an insurgent, what I can say to myself is, if I can kill this process, I've got to do it this year," the official said. "I think they're going to pull out all the stops."
President Bush's approval ratings have fallen as U.S.-led forces and their Iraqi allies struggle to make a dent against an insurgency composed of foreign fighters and disaffected Iraqis. U.S. deaths in combat hit one of their highest marks of the war last week, led by a bombing that killed 14 Marines and their Iraqi interpreter. Killings of Iraqi forces and civilians have surged since Jafari's government took office in late April, as insurgents try to wreck the government-building process.
"As we go along, everything we do has that motive: leave it so they can sustain it after we're gone," the official said. "Everything we do with the military we do so they can sustain it after we're gone. Just so we're all thinking the same thing, this is not going to be someone flips a switch and all of a sudden we go from 138,000 to nothing. This is going to be gradual."
Efforts to train Iraqi security forces involve direct U.S. military presence with the troops on the ground, the official said. "This is a bottom-up process based on the progress of these units. It's not going to be a precipitous process. As these guys come on line, we're backing ourselves out. It's tied to real, measurable" progress.
"But," he added, "you can't build an army overnight."
He said it was essential to help Iraq control its borders, cutting off what U.S. and Iraqi officials say is a flow of foreign fighters from neighboring Syria. "They're not coming in in waves, but they're coming in in sufficient numbers," he said. "And the only way to deal with them is to drive a wedge between them and Iraqi people, and kill or capture them, and close the door on letting them come in."
He also warned of possible overthrow attempts by forces of ousted president Saddam Hussein. "The Saddamists, the Baathists -- they can have a long-term strategy and bide their time," the official said.
If Iraq manages to stay on track, he said, "I think we're going to be in pretty good shape" by 2007.
Jafari, in his news conference Wednesday, said joint Iraqi-U.S. efforts were making "some progress" against the insurgency.
Jafari's Shiite Muslim-led government, many of whose top figures spent years in exile in Iran while Hussein was in power, also insisted Wednesday that U.S. reports of bombs being smuggled into Iraq from Iran were "exaggerated." Rumsfeld said Tuesday that weapons were being moved across the border, although he said it was impossible to tell whether they were coming from the Iranian government.
Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called Wednesday for Iraq's disparate blocs to move forward on the constitution "as there is not enough time left," Shiite political leader Abdul Aziz Hakim said after meeting with Sistani. The cleric also emphasized the role Islam should play in the constitution, Hakim said.
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington, correspondent Jonathan Finer in Baghdad and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.