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U.S. says Iraq forces could control provinces this year

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iraq’s army and police could be ready to take over security in all 18 provinces by the end of this year as the U.S. military moves toward a less prominent role in the country, U.S. officials said on Thursday.

“We look at it every month. We make recommendations. I think that if we continue along the path we’re on now, we’ll be able to do that by the end of 2008,” Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said when asked when Iraqi forces could take the lead in all provinces.

He said that a joint operation under way led by Iraqi troops and supported by U.S. troops against al Qaeda militants in the northern city of Mosul was a model for the future.

“That’s how I see our role frankly in the future here,” he told Pentagon reporters via videolink from Baghdad.

Iraqi security forces are now in control of nine provinces after assuming control of Iraqi’s southern oil hub, Basra, in December. Iraqi forces are also expected to take control in Anbar province, a one-time insurgent stronghold, as early as March.

The ability of Iraqi forces to take the lead in security operations is vital to President George W. Bush’s plan to withdraw 20,000 U.S. troops by the middle of this year.

The troops were sent to Iraq last year in a bid to quell sectarian violence in a war now in its sixth year. With U.S. troop levels up to about 155,000 now, violence levels have since dropped sharply.

“All the evidence available to me now suggests we will be able to complete the drawdown,” Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters separately.

“(It) remains my hope that the pace of the drawdowns in the second half of the year will be what it was in the first half of the year,” he said.

Lt. Gen. James Dubik, commander of security transition in Iraq, told the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on Thursday that the number of Iraqi security forces, or ISF, could exceed 580,000 by the end of the year, up from the current 500,000.

But he also expressed caution about their abilities.

“Force structure and capability still lack a certain maturity. The ISF have not yet achieved self reliance in all area of logistics, maintenance and life support,” he told the panel.

Odierno said he was confident the withdrawal of the five brigades will occur despite expectations for an upswing in insurgent attacks as militants respond to a new joint offensive known as Operation Phantom Phoenix.

The operation has killed or captured 92 “high-value individuals, according to the U.S. military.

“While we may see a short-term increase in violence in response to our operations in the weeks ahead, I expect Phantom Phoenix to contribute significantly to the population’s security,” Odierno said.

Gates’ hopes for further reductions in U.S. forces this year will depend on a March assessment by the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

“To predict now whether we can go lower or not is difficult and I would not want to make that prediction right now,” Odierno said.

But Gates said the U.S. mission in Iraq has begun its planned transition to a more supportive role that would focus on border security and combating al Qaeda in Iraq. “That’s ultimately where we are headed, and we have begun that process of transition,” he said.

Editing by David Alexander and Stuart Grudgings