WASHINGTON (AP) – The number of Iraqi battalions capable of combat without U.S. support has dropped from three to one, the top American commander in Iraq told Congress yesterday, prompting Republicans to question whether U.S. troops will be able to withdraw next year.
Gen. George Casey, softening his previous comments that a “fairly substantial” pull out could begin next spring and summer, told lawmakers that troops might begin coming home from Iraq next year depending on conditions during and after the upcoming elections there.
“The next 75 days are going to be critical for what happens,” Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Bush administration says training Iraqi security forces to defend their own country is the key to bringing home U.S. troops. But Republicans pressed Casey on whether the United States was backsliding in its efforts to train Iraqis.
In June, the Pentagon told lawmakers that three Iraqi battalions were fully trained, equipped and capable of operating independently. Yesterday, Casey said only one battalion is ready.
“It doesn’t feel like progress,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Despite the drop, Casey hailed significant progress in training Iraqi security forces and noted that U.S. troops are embedded with more Iraqi units in mentoring roles than before. “Have we lost ground? Absolutely not,” Casey said.
Casey said the Pentagon’s standard for what constitutes a fully capable Iraqi battalion is high and that it’s been difficult to ensure logistical support for Iraqi units. “I understand what you’re saying, how it could be perceived as disappointing,” he told Collins.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., questioned why the generals are discussing troop withdrawals when it’s clear Iraqi security forces aren’t ready.
“You’re taking a very big gamble here. I hope you’re correct. I don’t see the indicators yet that we are ready to plan or begin troop withdrawals given the overall security situation. And that just isn’t my opinion alone,” he said.