The head of the US army says the military can sustain the current surge of forces in Iraq until next spring without changing deployment policies.
But the general says it will take longer than that to create a stable society in Iraq.
General George Casey told the National Press Club he wants to ease the strain on the US army by ending the extended 15-month deployments to combat zones. But he says he will not be able to do that until the US troop commitment to Iraq comes down.
There are currently about 162,000 US troops in Iraq, most of them from the army. General Casey noted that the number will come down automatically in the spring when the deployments of the extra forces sent earlier this year expire, unless there is an order to send more troops to replace them.
"The surge was and remains a temporary function. I think we're on record here as saying the surge can be sustained through the spring without changes to the existing mobilization and deployment policies. And that's where we are. And we're going to wait and see here what happens, what our commanders on the ground recommend in the coming months."
Commanders have already indicated they are making progress establishing security and training Iraqi forces to take over. But they have been reluctant to say when a drawdown of US troops could start without risking an increase in violence.
Part of the reason is the continuing deadlock among Iraqi politicians. They have not been able to agree on a series of measures designed to promote national reconciliation, including laws on oil revenue sharing, regional autonomy and easing de-Baathification. General Casey, who commanded coalition forces in Iraq from mid-2004 until early this year, said the issues are difficult for the Iraqi leaders, but they can resolve them.
"When they want something to happen, like in the first elections and the second elections, it happens. And right now there's just so much residual mistrust left over from the time under Saddam Hussein that they're not quite ready to go forward."
General Casey also said it could take ten years for Iraq to fulfill its potential and become a prosperous, stable country. But he said he has never doubted that that can happen if the United States maintains its commitment.
"It will take patience and it will take will, and the terrorists are out to undermine our will, our national will to prosecute this. As complex, and as difficult, and as confusing as you may find Iraq, we can succeed there. And we will succeed there if we demonstrate patience and will."
General Casey was not asked about the deterioration of the situation in Iraq during the final year of his tour of duty there, during which he repeatedly said he did not need more troops. But he said the current surge strategy is working, and now it is up to the Iraqi leaders to do their part to end the violence.