US general admits fewer Iraqis are ready to take over

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The Independent US

He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if the constitution is rejected, the situation in Iraq may deteriorate further, as violence in Iraq escalates ahead of the 15 October referendum on a new constitution.

General Casey also said that the number of Iraqi army battalions rated by US officers as capable of fighting without US help had dropped from three to one. He did not explain why the number had dropped from three in June to one now. The Pentagon has built its Iraq strategy on the expectation that it can begin bringing American troops home as the Iraqis gradually take the lead in the fight against the insurgency.

"That contributes to a loss of public confidence in how the war is going," Senator Susan Collins, said of the gereral's remarks. "It doesn't feel like progress when we hear today there is only one Iraqi battalion fully capable."

The training effort has progressed far slower than once expected, and General Casey acknowledged that it has been hurt by infiltration of the army and Iraqi police by insurgents and their sympathisers. The general said 75 percent of the US-trained Iraqi army was at least capable of engaging in combat, albeit with US troops providing support in most cases.

He declined to give an exact breakdown of Iraqi combat readiness, which he said was classified as secret, but he said more than 30 battalions are judged capable of taking the lead in an offensive, with US support. Only one can operate entirely on its own.

Senator John McCain said he was troubled that with such uneven progress in training the Iraqi army, the Bush administration is still planning for the possible withdrawal of some US troops from Iraq next year.

General Casey declined to predict, as he had in July, that the Pentagon could make a substantial troop withdrawal next year if political progress continues and the insurgency does not grow more violent. But he added under questioning by committee members that troop reductions were possible in 2006.