RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The American commander in Iraq offered an answer to a question that many Americans are asking. The question is when U.S. troops can come home. President Bush says the answer depends on when Iraq's new government can defend itself.
In Baghdad yesterday, General George Casey made a prediction. He is forecasting that Iraqis can mostly stand on their own by sometime around the start of 2008. Casey made that statement even as the president began a series of speeches on the war.
And we start our coverage with NPR's Corey Flintoff in Baghdad.
COREY FLINTOFF reporting:
Although U.S. commanders nearly always express public confidence in the Iraqi's ability to take over their own security, they're rarely willing to offer timeframes. General Casey said he doesn't have a date...
General GEORGE CASEY (U.S. Army): But I can see - over the next 12 to 18 months, I can see the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country with very little coalition support.
FLINTOFF: That may be a very optimistic view. The Iraqi army's ability to stand up to militias was tested earlier this week in the town of Diwaniya south of Baghdad. The Iraqi army's Eighth Division got into a daylong firefight with gunman from the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The battle ended after local civilian leaders negotiated with Sadr's aids and the Iraq commander pulled his troops out of the city for a rest.
Gen. CASEY: I don't think it should be seen as a setback. The Iraqi armed forces acquitted themselves quite well. They had losses, but they gave much better than they got. And that battle's not finished yet.
FLINTOFF: Claims about the death toll vary, but the U.S. military command here says the army killed 50 militia members and lost 23 of its own soldiers. And coalition forces did have to step in to help the Iraqi military.
Casey did acknowledge concern about another recent problem - 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. General Casey said the incidents were troubling but they involved only two battalions out of 110 in the Iraqi army.
Gen. CASEY: And the Iraqi ground forces and Ministry of Defense are investigating both of those incidents with the intent of holding the people responsible accountable for their actions.
FLINTOFF: Critics such as retired Army General Barry McCaffrey have complained that, so far at least, the U.S. 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 100 Black Hawk helicopters and 30 C-130 transport planes. General Casey says the U.S. is providing the Iraqis with the equipment they need.
Gen. CASEY: They've got three C-130s now. I think they probably have about a total of about 30 helicopters or so, and that will be up to them to decide if they need more than that right now.
Gen. McCaffrey's point that they were woefully under-armed I think is not right. They are well armed for the counter-insurgency fight.
FLINTOFF: Even if the Iraqi army has all of the equipment it needs, insurgent attacks are still proving deadly. Since Sunday, casualties among Iraqi civilians have risen into the hundreds.
The next big challenge in the fight could come in Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are sealing off neighborhoods and trying to capture militants and criminals.
Just today, gunmen killed four Iraqi soldiers in the Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriyah, where the latest sweep is taking place. U.S. Humvees are reported to be patrolling the streets there now.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.
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