BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. officials said Tuesday Iraqi leaders have agreed to develop a timeline by the end of the year for progress in stabilizing Iraq, and Iraqi forces should be able to take full control of security in the country in the next 12 to 18 months with "some level" of American support.
Even as October marked the deadliest month for U.S. forces in Iraq this year, with 89 American servicemembers killed in combat so far, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said he felt the United States should continue to focus on drawing down American forces in the country.
Regardless, Gen. George Casey said he would not hesitate to ask for more troops if he felt they were necessary.
He appeared at a rare joint news conference with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. A power failure in the Green Zone briefly cut off the broadcast of the remarks.
"We are about 75 percent of the way through a three-step process in building those (Iraqi) forces. It is going to take another 12 to 18 months or so till I believe the Iraqi security forces are completely capable of taking over responsibility for their own security that's still coupled with some level of support from us," Casey said.
With violence in Iraq at staggering levels, the United States is battling on both the military and political fronts to tame growing chaos in regions where Sunni insurgent violence now is compounded by sectarian killing.
Khalilzad said the Iraqi government had agreed by the end of the year to develop a timeline for progress. At the same time, he declared, the United States needed to redouble its efforts to succeed in Iraq.
"Iraq leaders have agreed to a timeline for making the hard decisions needed to resolve these issues," Khalilzad said. "Iraqi leaders must step up to achieve key political and security milestones on which they've agreed."
Details of the milestones were not spelled out, but Khalizad mentioned several areas in which progress would be measured, including devising a system to share the country's oil wealth among all religious and ethnic groups.
His comments came a day after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. government and military officials were working with Iraq to set broad time frames for when Iraqis can take over 16 provinces that are still under the control of U.S. troops. He said officials were not talking about penalizing the Iraqis if they don't hit certain benchmarks.
The Iraqis have taken control of two southern provinces but have been slow to take the lead in others, particularly those around Baghdad and in the volatile regions north and west of the capital city. Rumsfeld said specific target dates probably will not be set. Instead, he said there might be a broader time frame - such as a one- to three-month window - for the Iraqis to take control of certain provinces.
Rumsfeld said the United States was looking at when the Iraqis would move close to setting up a reconciliation process to help quell worsening sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.
Violence has spiked during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Casey said the Iraqi army lost 300 men during the fasting month ending this week.
The American military announced the deaths in combat of two more U.S. Marines in the insurgent stronghold of Anbar province. The deaths raised to 89 the number of U.S. forces killed in October, the highest toll for any month this year and on course to surpass the October 2005 total of 96. Before that the deadliest months were January 2005, at 107; November 2004 at 137 and April 2004, at 135.
A U.S. military spokesman also said earlier Tuesday there had been no word on the fate of an American soldier reported missing the day before in Baghdad. Troops carrying photos of the missing soldier continued door-to-door searches while Army Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters circled overhead in the central Karradah district.
Khalilzad said the government should transform the committee that was formed to insure that Saddam Hussein's loyalists held no important national positions into an organization that would seek entice them back to the political process.
That was seen as a bow to the Sunni insurgency. Sunnis comprise a minority of the population in mostly Shiite Iraq but were dominant under Saddam's regime.
"We are helping Iraqi leaders complete a national compact. ...Political forces must make difficult decisions in the coming weeks to reach agreements on numbers of outstanding issues on which Iraqis differ," Khalilzad said.
Casey and Khalilzad castigated Iran and Syria, Iraq's neighbors east and west, for trying to undermine the American effort to stabilize the country, with Casey saying both countries had been "decidedly unhelpful."
Khalilzad said radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had agreed through Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to U.S. demands that the government develop a timeline that would include the eradication of militias.
Al-Sadr controls the Mahdi Army, the country's most feared band of armed men, largely drawn from the downtrodden, poor and unemployed in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite slum enclave.
The U.S. ambassador said the United States was engaging with insurgent leaders, trying to persuade them to lay down their weapons and join the political process. He also announced the Americans had sought and received agreement from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan - all largely Sunni Muslim countries - to intercede with the insurgency.
The missing soldier's name and other personal details have not been officially released. American troops who raided Baghdad's al-Furat TV on Monday said they were looking for an abducted American officer of Iraqi descent who had gone to join family members in Karradah.
"We have not heard anything," Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an American spokesman in Baghdad, said. "We are sure U.S. forces are doing everything they can in the search."
A U.S. military official in Washington on Monday said the missing soldier was a U.S. Army translator of Iraqi descent who may have been abducted. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not cleared for release.
Sectarian violence persisted in the southern Iraqi city of Amarah, with at least two more policemen shot to death early Tuesday. Militiamen loyal to al-Sadr have been hunting down officers aligned with a rival group in a new outbreak of Shiite-on-Shiite revenge attacks in the city.
The attacks came despite a public call by al-Sadr to halt the killings, suggesting that splinter groups were developing within his militia.
"I totally reject any Shiite-Shiite fighting or Sunni-Shiite sectarian fighting in Iraq under any pretext," al-Sadr said in an address to supporters Tuesday marking the beginning of the three-day festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. "Protecting Iraq is our main goal and the expulsion of the occupation troops from the country is our objective too."
Sunni Muslims marked the start of the festival on Monday.