Military view

The US commander said: "And that's not a political answer. That's a military answer, and what it takes to train the young men and get the leadership that they need to be able to do what the army does.

"[That is to] protect its borders and provide for the sovereignty of this nation, to provide assistance to what's going on as far as counter insurgency."

The US has boosted force levels in Iraq to about 158,000 troops under a plan aimed at establishing enough security to allow progress on political benchmarks seen by Washington as critical to long-term stability.

The so-called surge force has been in place for about a month, but Democrats and some Republicans have stepped up calls for a strategy change leading to withdrawal.

US senate Republicans have warned that a troop pullout would embolden Iraqi fighters and increase the risk of attack on the United States.

This week they blocked a Democratic proposal to force George Bush, the US president, to withdraw combat troops from the country.

Violence decreasing

Gaskin commands operations throughout Anbar province, where violence has ebbed after local Sunni Arab tribes joined together and turned against al-Qaeda.

The province is now held up by US political and military officials as a sign of progress toward reconciliation throughout the country.

However, Gaskin argued that security improvements should not lead to a reduction in the US force in Anbar, saying that such a move could cede gains to al-Qaeda.

He said: "We've had some real major fights twice in Fallujah, once out in Al-Qaim, where we have actually gone in and eliminated al-Qaeda.

"But because of the requirement to have forces at other places, we have pulled out. The key to this is having [a] persistent presence."

According to Gaskin, the number of attacks in Anbar has declined steeply from a year ago.

From July 13 to July 19, 2006, Anbar saw 428 incidents, including small-arm fire, indirect fire, rocker attacks and roadside bomb attacks.

In the comparable period this year, that has dropped to 98 incidents, he said.