Fewer Iraq battalions operate on own: U.S. general

U.S. soldiers keep watch from the roof of a private house during a patrol in Baghdad July 13, 2007. REUTERS/Nikola Solic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Iraqi army battalions that operate independently, with no assistance from U.S. forces, has dropped from 10 to six over the last two months, the top U.S. general said on Friday.

But Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, downplayed the figure’s importance, saying the decline was driven by casualties, worn-out equipment and the need to pull units from battle so they can be resupplied.

“The fact that a number may be changing in a very narrow band shouldn’t be overly a concern,” Pace told reporters.

Pace’s comments came a day after the Bush administration issued a report showing Iraqi security forces were unable to fight without substantial support from coalition troops.

In May, Pace said 10 Iraqi battalions -- military units of 350 to 800 soldiers -- were operating independently and 88 were in the lead in operations but still receiving U.S. support.

While the number of independently operating battalions has fallen, the number of battalions in the lead has increased to 100, Pace said on Friday.

“It is a valid thing to chase but we shouldn’t put too much weight on minor variations in those numbers,” he said.

The United States has added about 30,000 troops to Iraq, raising U.S. force levels there to 158,500, under a security plan aimed at establishing enough security to allow the government to make progress toward political reconciliation.

All of the additional forces have been in place since about June 15. Democrats and a growing number of Republican lawmakers in Washington are calling for the Bush administration to change its strategy, but President George W. Bush is insisting on more time to gauge its effectiveness.