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Gen. George Casey says the violence in Iraq is now a struggle for 'political and economic power among the Iraqis.' ((CBC))

The nature of the conflict in Iraq has fundamentally changed over the past year into a "complex and difficult" struggle for power among Iraqis, the top American commander in Iraq said Tuesday.

Gen. George Casey spoke in Baghdad at a rare jointnews conference with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

"Since the elections in December, we've seen the nature of the conflict evolving from what was an insurgency against us to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis," said Casey.

"This is a fundamental change of threat from last year."

Critics of the war allege Iraq has already descended into a full-blown civil war. In a no-nonsense manner, Casey said the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shia mosque in Samarra had heightened sectarian violence among Iraqis.

The general said "several groups are working actively to upset" the country's transition toward peace. Theyinclude al-Qaeda, local Iraqi militias and death squads, resistance fighters and "external actors," including Iran and Syria.

"Iran and Syria continue to be decidedly unhelpful by providing support to terror groups," said Casey.

The U.S. has focused its security efforts in and around Baghdad, which has seen a spike in violence since the summer, while still keeping an eye on al-Qaeda, he said.

Casey said he would reserve the right to ask for more American and Iraqi troops, butgave nofurther details.

Transfer plan by December

Khalilzad, who urged Americans to match the patience shown by Iraqis in the struggle for democracy, said the U.S. would deliver a plan outlining the transfer of security responsibilities to Iraq's government by the end of the year.

The timeframe could be as long as 18 months, he said.

Khalilzad said Washington will "make adjustments" to its strategy based on a three-point approach:

  1. Induce influential Iraqi political and religious leaders to agree to end sectarian violence.
  2. Help Iraqi leaders form a national compact to resolve outstanding national issues such as the country's oil supply, the constitution, elections and a future reconciliation program.
  3. Persuade Sunni insurgents to end violence and accept reconciliation with the help of Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Khalilzad said radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who controls the violent Mahdi Army militia, had agreed to U.S. demands that the government develop a timeline for reducing violence and stabilizing the political situation.

Recent polls have shown Americans' support for the war has plummeted, with a majority saying they don't believe the U.S. is winning the battle.

The U.S. military hasrecorded 78 soldier deathsin Iraq this month, the highest rate in the country since 2004.