WASHINGTON — The commander of Multi–National Corps–Iraq on Tuesday said Iraqi forces in Baghdad are leading a growing number of independent combat operations but will likely need more than a year before coalition forces can shift to a support-only role there.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, in a session with reporters at the National Press Club, said that “tactical overwatch” role remains a goal for all of Iraq, and has already begun in places such as Mosul.

“The Iraqi Army and police are responsible for day-to-day security inside the city,” he said. “U.S. forces are outside the city, very close and able to assist if needed.

“There might be some parts of Baghdad in that (situation) next year, but right now I believe it will take most of 2008 to get to tactical overwatch inside of Baghdad.”

Odierno said that, if successful, plans would then be for another step back by coalition forces, with response times of 12 to 15 hours if combat support is requested by the Iraqi fighters. He emphasized that those plans are still months away, and reiterated that any discussion of plans past next summer is premature.

Currently, coalition and Iraqi forces have some level of presence in about 80 percent of Baghdad neighborhoods, he said. As part of rebuilding efforts, planners are looking for ways to improve the delivery of electricity and fuel to those areas in hopes that will make the security gains permanent.

Odierno would not commit to a drawdown of troops in Anbar province, where military commanders have reported success in working with locals to root out militia members and al-Qaida cells.

But Odierno did add that “if things continue the way they have in Anbar, we’ll have an opportunity to reduce some force structure there.

“I think we’re headed in that direction,” he said. “But we’re only going to do that if we feel confident we can still succeed.”

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