BAGHDAD, Iraq – The top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq said Tuesday that they’d won agreement from the Iraqi government to set a timetable to tackle some of the country’s most intractable problems.

Army Gen. George Casey, the commander of American forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad provided no details of their discussions with Iraqi officials and no hard deadlines. Casey estimated that Iraqi troops would be able to assume security responsibilities in 18 months, but that wasn’t new: He’d made a similar prediction in a television interview in August.

The news conference came amid growing pressure in the United States for the Bush administration to rethink its Iraq policies. Polls show that Iraq is the No. 1 concern for voters two weeks before the congressional elections, and even Republican candidates are critical of American policies there.

President Bush has stressed that he remains flexible in responding to events in Iraq. He had a teleconference Saturday with Casey, Khalilzad, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow acknowledged that Bush had stopped using the phrase “stay the course” because it left the impression that the administration wasn’t adjusting its strategy.

Against that backdrop, Casey and Khalilzad’s appearance together was widely anticipated. The two last made a joint appearance in June to announce the death of al Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

The news Tuesday was hardly of similar import. In Washington, Republicans generally ignored the comments, while Democrats denounced them as more of the same. Bush made no effort to draw attention to the remarks while campaigning for Republican candidates in Florida, and Cheney didn’t mention them in an interview with conservative commentator Sean Hannity.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told National Public Radio, “We’re not making the progress we would like, and that’s why we have to look at what we are doing and see what we need to change to get the kind of progress that we need.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said his expectations were low. “We’ve been hearing White House promises to turn things over to the Iraqi forces for years – in 2006, in 2005, in 2004, in 2003 – but nothing ever seems to change,” he said. “I don’t think the American people are going to take it very seriously.”

As if to emphasize how difficult things are in Iraq, the electricity failed briefly during the news conference, a reminder that most of Iraq receives no more than six hours of electricity a day.


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