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The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said Wednesday that U.S. troop levels could be substantially reduced by early next year as a top Iraqi official said the U.S. could hand over security in 10 cities by December.

"If the political process continues to go positively and if the development of the security forces continues to go on, I do believe that we will be able to make fairly substantial reductions after these (December) elections, in the spring," said General George Casey.

He was speaking after talks with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other commanders.

"From now until the (December) elections we hope to have transferred 10 major cities," Muwaffaq Rubaie, the chairman of a new transition task force, told AFP.

General elections are scheduled for December 15.

Talks on handing over security to newly-formed Iraqi forces were expected to be one of the main topics raised during Rumsfeld's surprise visit, said Rubaie.

A joint U.S.-Iraqi transition committee is to report to Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari on transferring security from coalition troops to Iraqi forces within 60 days, with a final report expected a month later, Rubaie said.

Transfer of responsibilities will depend on how fast Iraqi forces are able to meet a set of five or six criteria, still to be defined, allowing them to operate alone against insurgents, Rubaie added.

Meeting the criteria, which will include better coordination between police and army, will allow for "the transfer of some secured areas from the multinational forces" starting with a number of cities, he said.

U.S. forces might also hand over control in parts of Baghdad, he added.

Khalilzad has said for his part that the task force "will establish no timeline" but will "identify conditions sanctioned by the leadership of the Iraqi government and the multi-national coalition."

The setting up of the transition task force comes at a time when U.S. forces are seeking to speed up the training of Iraqi forces to allow them to take responsibility for stabilizing the war-torn country.

U.S. President George W. Bush has refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of the 138,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, but has said U.S. forces would stand down as Iraqi forces gradually take over.

Rumsfeld's visit comes at a time when the Pentagon has expressed concern over the readiness of Iraqi security forces to take over.

Pentagon officials have refused to comment on the specifics, but have acknowledge that only a small number of the 171,500 Iraqi soldiers and police are ready to mount independent counter-insurgency operations.

Maintaining a high-level of troops in Iraq has put severe strains on the U.S. military, and the rising U.S. death toll which has reached 1,781 is eroding U.S. public support for the war.

A majority of Americans now believe the United States cannot win the war, nor establish a democratic government in Iraq, according to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll published Wednesday.

Thirty-two percent believe outright that the United States cannot win the war in Iraq, 21 percent believe the war could be won but in the end will not be won, while 43 percent predict a victory.

By a 58 to 37 percent margin, Americans said their government would not be able to establish a democratic government in Iraq, the poll said.

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