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US could hand over Iraq security in 18 months

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Tuesday October 24, 2006

Baghdad- Iraqi security forces would be able to take over responsibility for securing the country within 12 to 18 months, the US military commander there, General George Casey, said Tuesday. At a joint news conference in Baghdad with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Casey said Iraq had built up its security forces to around three-quarters of the level needed.

Amid growing dissatisfaction in the United States over the war in Iraq, Casey countered criticism by saying US forces had continuously adapted their strategy to "stay ahead of the enemy."

He insisted Iraq was "not a country that is awash with sectarian violence," saying the unrest was concentrated in five provinces. He did admit however that the security situation in Iraq was "difficult and complex," and "likely to remain that way over the medium term."

Khalilzad said the US was working with political and religious leaders in Iraq to stem sectarian violence and on a economic plan stressing the need for a more equal distribution of resources, including oil resources.

Khalilzad pointed the finger at al-Qaeda, and at Iran and Syria, for fuelling extremism in Iraq including the growing sectarian violence.

Competition between sectarian and ethnic political groups for economic and political power had become a "dominant feature" of the political landscape, he said.

He hailed the forming of a national unity government in April as "a beacon for the Middle East" and said a "secure, unified and democratic Iraq" would mean a more secure Middle East, America and "whole world."

The news conference came a day after the White House announced US and Iraqi officials were working on "benchmarks and milestones" to track the Iraq's government's handling of security.

Neither Casey nor Khalilzad made any reference to reports in The New York Times that the Iraqi government could face unspecified penalties if it failed to achieve the targets set.

The White House insisted Monday that no "ultimatums" were planned. The Bush administration had repeatedly signalled in recent days that it is looking at ways to shift tactics to stop a surge of attacks in Iraq that have killed more than 89 US soldiers this month.

The latest US personnel to perish in Iraq were two marines who died in an attack in al-Anbar province, the US military command announced Tuesday in Fallujah.

The deaths had occurred Monday, the statement said. Nine US soldiers died in fighting over the weekend across Iraq, bringing the death toll in October to 89 - higher than any other month in 2006.

Meanwhile, US and Iraqi troops continued a joint search Tuesday for a US soldier who has gone missing in Baghdad.

A statement released on Monday had said US and Iraqi forces "immediately responded to attempt to locate the soldier, the search is ongoing," but without giving further details.

It remained unclear whether the soldier had been kidnapped or was missing for other reasons.

Elsewhere in Iraq, a bodyguard and five children were injured Tuesday when an explosive device targeting a police patrol detonated near a police station in Kirkuk, 250 kilometres north of Baghdad, police sources said.

An Iraqi soldier was also killed and three others injured in two more attacks on security forces in Kirkuk.

Fierce clashes occurred between insurgents and US soldiers in the western Iraqi stronghold of Ramadi, according to the al-Arabiya news channel.

Meanwhile, the US military command has handed over control of the northern part of Ramadi to Iraqi security forces, a statement said.

Also Tuesday, a flyer claiming to be from the Shiite militant al- Mahdi army was distributed exhorting senior police and other officials in Diyali province to cooperate in a forthcoming campaign to clear the province of Sunni insurgents.

The flyer, distributed in Baquba, claims that the campaign will be carried out by 200 militants loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

The document was purportedly signed by Abu Hussein al-Tamimy, the head of the al-Sadr loyal al-Mahdi army.

Residents of Baquba however said the authenticity of the flyer could not be verified, and that it was aimed at further inflaming sectarian tensions.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency