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Casey: Iraqi forces may not take over job for 18 months

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi security forces will need another year to 18 months before they can take over from American troops, the top US commander in Iraq, General George W. Casey Jr., said yesterday.

The assessment, which came on a day when at least 78 people were killed or found dead across Iraq, drove home a growing realization that US troops will stay longer and in greater numbers in Iraq than once anticipated by ground commanders and the Bush administration.

``I don't have a date, but I can see over the next 12 to 18 months, the Iraqi security forces progressing to a point where they can take on the security responsibilities for the country, with very little coalition support," Casey told reporters in Baghdad.

He would not commit to a US drawdown after that date, saying it depended on the security situation in the country.

``We'll adjust that as we go," Casey said, referring to US troop levels in the country. ``But a lot of that, in fact the future coalition presence, 12 to 18 months from now, is going to be decided by the Iraqi government."

Last year, Casey said ``significant" troop withdrawals could take place soon after the Iraqi elections that December. Casey and other top commanders said at the time that they were prepared to recommend a drawdown of 30,000 troops by the spring, if the election and training of security forces went well.

The start of reductions was delayed by an outbreak of civil warfare, but Casey said in May that his ``general timeline" was still on track. In June, Casey predicted ``gradual reductions" in US troop levels over the following year. But by last month, generals began shelving plans for troop cuts this year and instead ordered extensions of combat tours as violence worsened.

About 8,000 US troops and 3,000 Iraqi soldiers have flooded sections of the capital, including several that had been turned over to Iraqi forces this spring. Military officials say the increased patrols and searches have lowered Baghdad's record homicide rate, which soared to 1,800 in July.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki touted the drop in the homicide rate as evidence of ``an atmosphere of reconciliation" in an interview with CNN on Sunday.

But the week that followed showed little reconciliation, and August is now ending on a bloody note. Since Sunday, at least 317 people have been killed nationwide -- 126 of them in the capital.

Yesterday, the worst of the violence again hit civilians in and around the capital.

Just after 7 a.m., a bomb exploded near an Iraqi Army recruitment center in the Shi'ite-dominated city of Hillah. At least 13 people were killed in the explosion, according to a hospital official.

A few hours later in the capital, a bomb tore through a busy wholesale market shortly before 10 a.m., killing at least 24 people and injuring another 35, police said.

Two bombs exploded near a gas station about 2 miles away, killing two civilians and a policeman who was trapped inside his car, according to authorities. Elsewhere in Baghdad, gunmen shot and killed a manager at the Ministry of Justice, her driver, and bodyguard. Near a rug factory, gunmen shot and killed three people on a bus in western Baghdad.

Sixteen bodies were found in two Baghdad neighborhoods, most showing signs of torture. Another five bodies were found floating in the Tigris River about 30 miles south of the capital.

A US Marine assigned to the First Brigade, First Armored Division died Tuesday from wounds sustained during operations in Anbar Province, the military said yesterday.

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