BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's transitional prime minister called Wednesday for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops and the top U.S. commander here said he believed a "fairly substantial" pullout could begin next spring and summer.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said at a joint news conference with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that the time has arrived to plan a coordinated transition from American to Iraqi military control throughout the country.
Asked how soon a U.S. withdrawal should happen, he said no exact timetable had been set. "But we confirm and we desire speed in that regard," he said, speaking through a translator. "And this fast pace has two aspects."
First, there must be a quickening of the pace of U.S. training of Iraqi security forces, and second there must be closely coordinated planning between the U.S.-led military coalition and the emerging Iraq government on a security transition, he said.
"We do not want to be surprised by a withdrawal that is not in connection with our Iraqi timing,"' he said.
Speaking earlier with U.S. reporters traveling with Rumsfeld, Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said he believed a U.S. troop withdrawal could begin by spring 2006 if progress continues on the political front and if the insurgency does not expand.
Rumsfeld was planning to get a firsthand look at the training of Iraqi security forces by watching a demonstration by a group of Iraqi special forces soldiers using live ammunition at a training range run by American troops.
U.S. officials describe a variety of security forces being developed. Foremost is the Iraqi army, comprised mainly of infantry battalions, although there also are to be four tank battalions. The army now has about 77,000 soldiers, and it is scheduled to expand to about 85,000 by December. It includes "intervention forces," to lead the Iraqi effort against the insurgency.
There are now about 94,000 police, most for standard traffic and patrol work. That is to grow to about 145,000 by December, and it includes "special police" commando battalions as well as a mechanized police brigade that will be a paramilitary, counterinsurgency unit intended to deploy to high-risk areas using light armored personnel carriers.
The organization in charge of training and equipping Iraqi security forces is the Multinational Security Transition Command, headed by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who last week was announced by the Pentagon as the next commander of the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He is to be replaced in Iraq by Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who spent more than a year in Iraq as commander of the 1st Armored Division.
The effort to build a reliable Iraq security force has been slowed by a number of problems. One that can be traced to the earliest days of the U.S. military occupation was the virtual disintegration of the Iraqi army that existed when American troops invaded in March 2003. Some say this was made worse by the decision of L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq starting in May 2003, to formally disband the Iraqi security forces.
Another problem has been infiltration of the security forces by insurgents. In its report to Congress last week, the Pentagon acknowledged that this remains a problem and it still is unable to say just how much infiltration there is, despite efforts to improve vetting of recruits.
Rumsfeld said en route to Iraq on Wednesday that Iraqi leaders must take a more aggressive stance against what he called harmful interference from neighboring Syria and Iran.
He said he would be pushing the Iraqis to provide more people who can be trained by U.S. personnel to handle the growing number of detainees in the country, now estimated to number at least 15,000.
With a permanent Iraqi government scheduled to take power in January, following adoption of a constitution and an election in December, they need trained prison guards "so that as soon as it is feasible we can transfer responsibility for Iraqi prisoners to the Iraqi government," he said.
Rumsfeld has often criticized Iran and Syria for meddling in Iraq's affairs. In his remarks Wednesday, he put the main onus on Iraqi leaders to do more to fix the problem.
"They need to be aggressively communicating with their neighbors to see that foreign terrorists stop coming across those borders and that their neighbors do not harbor insurgents and finance insurgents," he said in an in-flight interview with reporters accompanying him from Tajikistan.