The top American commander in Iraq has said Iraqi forces will be able to take over the country's security by 2008.
Gen. George Casey told reporters Wednesday that the Iraqi Army and police should be able to fight the insurgency by then, with very little coalition support.
Iraq's ability to stand up to militias was tested earlier this week in the town of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. The Iraqi army's 8th division got into a daylong firefight with gunmen from the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The battle ended after local civilian leaders negotiated a deal with Sadr's aides, and the Iraqi commander pulled his troops out of the city.
Gen. Casey saw progress in the confrontation.
"I don't think it should be seen as a setback. The Iraqi armed forces acquitted themselves quite well," Casey said. "They had losses. But they gave much better than they got. And that battle is not finished yet."
Claims about the death toll vary. The U.S. military command here says the army killed 50 militia members, and lost 23 of its own soldiers. In the end, coalition forces did have to step in to help their Iraqi counterparts.
Casey acknowledged concern about another recent problem. There have been two instances in which Iraqi battalions refused an order to deploy. In Basra, where one of the incidents took place, British commanders called it a mutiny.
Critics, such as retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, have complained that the United States isn't providing the Iraqi army with enough equipment to do the job properly. McCaffrey recently listed what he thought the Iraqis needed, including thousands more up-armored Humvees and personnel carriers, as well as more than a 100 Blackhawk helicopters and 30 C-130 transport planes.
Gen. Casey said the United States is providing the Iraqis with the equipment they need.
"Gen. McCaffrey's point that they are woefully under-armed, I think is not right," Casey said. "They are well armed for the counterinsurgency fight."
Even if the Iraqi army has all the equipment they need, insurgent attacks are still proving deadly. At least 14 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since Sunday, although two of those were due to nonhostile action.
The next big challenge in the fight could come in Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are sealing off neighorhoods in an effort to try to capture militants and criminals.
On Thursday, gunmen killed four Iraqi soldiers in the Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriya, where the latest sweep is taking place. U.S. Humvees are reported to be patrolling the streets there now.