Even with a troop reduction, U.S. military appears headed for a long stay in Iraq

All signs point to a major drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq in 2006 perhaps to fewer than 100,000 by year's end. But it is far from certain when there will be further reductions, or a total pullout, after that.

In fact, it now looks as if the United States may have a long-term and substantial military presence in Iraq, military experts say.

Generals have been reluctant to set specific public timetables, but Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander, noted this week that insurgencies in the 20th century lasted on average nine years. The Iraq war is coming up on year three.

"Because of the nature of counterinsurgency, it's often hard for people to define what victory is," Casey said. "It's not D-Day. There's not a big battle and it's all over. It's about people making choices so it evolves over time. And that's exactly what you see here."

The number of American troops here now is 136,000 down from a December high of 160,000 troops, whose ranks were bolstered to protect against attacks during the Dec. 15 voting.

Casey is expected to recommend more cuts this spring. There's speculation that by the end of this year, fewer than 100,000 U.S. troops will be in Iraq.

All that is predicated, however, on deploying more trained Iraqi army and police units to maintain security and to fight the insurgents. It also depends on the ability of the Iraqis to put together a government that can win the trust of disaffected Sunni Arabs, the backbone of the insurgency.

Talks on a new government will accelerate after the election commission releases certified figures from the December balloting this week. Still, it could be June before a new government is in place, reports AP.

O.Ch.