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Iraq Transition

U.S. general: Iraqi army can't be rushed

Iraqi troops not yet ready to take over defense of country

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Iraqi soldiers look over their targets Sunday during weapons-handling and marksmanship training.

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(CNN) -- Despite calls in Washington and Iraq to pull out foreign troops, the U.S. general in charge of helping Iraq create an army says training troops to replace coalition forces cannot be rushed.

"We are moving at a measured pace," Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told CNN. "We want this army over time to be representative, to be cohesive, to be a role model for the potential of what could work for the rest of society," he said.

President Bush on November 19 rejected Democratic calls to begin steps to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, in part because Iraqi forces are not yet able to defend the country on their own. (Watch how Bush can't escape the Iraq question -- 2:28)

Bush did say that U.S. troops were making "steady progress" in training Iraqi soldiers to replace them. (Watch the progress that is being made -- 3:42)

"As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," the president mostly recently told a military audience in South Korea.

Still, pressure for a U.S. drawdown continues in Iraq and Washington. (Watch Rep. Murtha explain why he thinks troops should leave Iraq -- 8:41)

On Tuesday, Iraqi leaders from the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish communities held a summit in Cairo and said they wanted more precise proposals for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.

In a final statement, the leaders agreed on "calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops according to a timetable, through putting in place an immediate national program to rebuild the armed forces ... control the borders and the security situation" and end terror attacks.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday the number of U.S. troops "is clearly going to come down" as Iraqi capabilities increase, but she stopped short of saying how many might leave or when they might come home.

"I suspect that the American forces are not going to be needed in the numbers that they are there for that much longer," Rice told CNN.

Just because Iraqi forces are getting better, Rice said, "doesn't mean that coalition forces are no longer needed, because there are still certain functions that they're [the Iraqis] not capable of doing."

U.S. forces in Iraq currently number about 155,000. The base level for American troops is 138,000, but the force was boosted to provide additional security for next month's Iraqi elections. Those additional troops eventually will be rotated back home after the vote. (Watch how soldier morale is declining -- 2:36)

A senior defense official has told CNN that a plan to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq early next year has been submitted to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Rumsfeld has not yet signed off on the plan, which would still require that certain conditions be met by the Iraqis before U.S. troops would leave, the senior official said.

But the U.S. officers in charge of training the Iraqis say the chance to turn over Iraq to Iraqis may not come any time soon.

Dempsey, commander of Multinational Security Transition Command, whose mission is to help the Iraqi government train the new security forces, acknowledges there are problems.

"Progress is uneven," he said. "It's uneven across the country, it's uneven across units, it's uneven between the army and the police."

The U.S. military says there are 100,000 Iraqi troops. The number given for trained and equipped Iraqi troops has fluctuated wildly over the past year and has been the subject of debate in Washington.

At the moment, the United States says some of the formed battalions control their own areas, though they still rely on U.S. support.

Lt. Col. Ross Brown of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment said he is hard on his Iraqi recruits because he wants them to survive. But he sometimes does not get the same commitment in return.

"They didn't do too much work yesterday. They didn't do too much work the day before. They haven't done too much work since they've been here," Brown told CNN.

They have gone through various training courses, including marksmanship, tactics and discipline, according to Dempsey's Multinational Security Transition Command.

Noncommissioned officers get special training courses and officers receive education through a new staff college that was formed with support and advice from NATO.

The training command says the remainder of Iraq's new army units will come on line through 2005 and into 2006.

The need to build a new army came after the former U.S. administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, disbanded the 400,000-strong force that had served under Saddam Hussein. At the time he said that many Iraqi soldiers simply laid down their arms and went home, sometimes looting the barracks as they left.

U.S. trainers have been pleased by some of the new commanders to come up through the system. One, Col. Ismeal Thear, has been called by Col. Steven Salazar, commander of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, "an outstanding leader ... simply a patriot."

Thear wants to take more responsibility from coalition forces.

"We tell the coalition forces we just need support," he said. "We don't have helicopters."

CNN's Nic Robertson and John King contributed to this report.

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