Ottawa Citizen

U. S. sets date to let Iraqis take control

Shia- led government expected to have full security control within 18 months; U. S. troops to help push

- BY SHELDON ALBERTS

WASHINGTON • The top American diplomat and military commander in Iraq predicted yesterday the United States could turn over complete control of the country’s security to Iraqi forces within 12 to 18 months, despite acknowledg­ing more U. S. troops may be needed in the short term to quell record levels of sectarian violence.

The optimistic projection from senior U. S. officials came amid growing concern among Republican­s that the Iraq war will cost them control of Congress in the Nov. 7 mid- term elections.

In an unusual joint news conference, U. S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey announced the Iraqi government had agreed to a “ realistic timetable” for disarming illegal militias that have killed thousands of civilians in recent months.

Iraqi officials also committed to a series of “ benchmarks” on a law to share oil revenues, set dates for provincial elections and create a reconcilia­tion commission to address historic sectarian tensions.

“ It’s going to take another 12 to 18 months or so until I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibi­lity for their own security,” Gen. Casey said via video link from Baghdad. “ Coupled with the already good progress with the Iraqi security forces, I think ( we) can put Iraq in a very good place in 12 months.”

Only last week, a senior U. S. commander in Iraq had described the sectarian strife engulfing the country as “ dishearten­ing,” and said a joint U. S.- Iraqi effort to regain control of Baghdad had failed to reduce violence.

But with pressure mounting from the White House, it’s now time for Iraq’s leadership to “ step up” and deliver on several political and security milestones, Mr. Khalilzad said.

“ Success in Iraq is possible and can be achieved on a realistic timetable,” the ambassador added.

Mr. Khalilzad said the timeline would require Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki’s government to set dates by the end of the year for completing six key tasks.

Five of the markers are clearly designed to mollify Sunni Arabs, the Muslim sect that makes up the bulk of the insurgency and is responsibl­e for most American deaths in Iraq.

The plan seeks deadlines for passing a law that would guarantee the sharing of Iraq’s oil wealth, amending the constituti­on, turning an anti- Baathist organizati­on into a reconcilia­tion body, disbanding Shia militias and setting a date for provincial elections — all key issues for Sunnis.

The sixth measure called for “ increasing the credibilit­y and capability of Iraqi forces.”

The U. S. officials refused to speculate on what measures they would take if Iraq’s fledgling government misses the deadlines.

But a drawdown of the 142,000 American troops in Iraq is not expected until there is a tangible decrease in violence in Baghdad.

“ Do we need more troops to do that? Maybe,” said Gen. Casey.

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