Commander says training of Iraqi forces on schedule

WASHINGTON (AFP) — The top US commander in Iraq said on Sunday that training of Iraqi security forces was “on track” playing down earlier comments that only one Iraqi battalion was able to operate independently.
“The development of the Iraqi security forces is very much on track,” General George Casey, commander of US-led multinational forces in Iraq, said on ABC television’s “This Week” programme.

Casey faced tough questioning last week before a US Senate committee when he revealed that only one Iraqi battalion was at “Level One,” a ranking for units capable of conducting independent operations US troops.

The Pentagon had said previously that three battalions were at the Level One rating.

In his appearance on ABC, Casey sought to clarify his earlier comments, saying the US military had set “a very high standard” for the Level One ranking.

“They have to be able to operate independently without our support,” he said.

With more than 190,000 Iraqi troops trained and equipped, Casey said there had been substantial progress and that an increasing number of operations were led by Iraqi forces.

Operations involving more than 100 Iraqi troops had increased from 160 in May to 1,300 in September, he said.

“In a year from now, if there’s not more battalions at Level One, I’ll be concerned. Right now, I’m not,” Casey said.

The US strategy was meant to allow Iraqis to take charge of the fight against the insurgency “as we progressively draw our forces down” over the next several years, he said.

Public support for the war in the United States has been steadily declining as US troops battle an increasingly violent insurgency. But Casey said the soldiers on the ground supported the effort and recounted a conversation with troops stationed in Iraq.

“I specifically asked that question to a group of soldiers … They said: `Tell the people back home — don’t speak for us. 9/11 won’t happen again. We’ll beat them here.’ That was their message to the people of the United States,” said Casey.

Casey said the situation in Iraq was difficult but that the Unitd States should persevere. “We shouldn’t be afraid of a tough fight as Americans,” he said.

Asked about warnings from analysts that the draft constitution if approved could aggravate sectarian divisions and feed the insurgency, Casey said: “That is fair, it could happen.”

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