WASHINGTON (AFP) — It will take Iraq "considerable" time to finish putting down extremists, General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the region said Friday.
"Although Al-Qaeda and other extremist elements in Iraq have been reduced significantly they do pose a continued threat to security and stability," Petraeus said in testimony to Congress.
With violence in Iraq surging, Petraus voiced concern at ethnic and sectarian strains, tensions between political parties, the return of displaced people, and budget issues, among major challenges facing Baghdad.
"The progress there is still fragile and reversible," he stressed.
On Iraqi security forces, Petraeus said: "they are considerably more capable than they were just a couple of years ago, but there will be continued attacks over time.
"It is going to take a considerable time for Iraq to eliminate all of the remaining (extremist) elements," he said.
Two suicide bombers struck near a major Shiite shrine in Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 58 people amid a brutal spike of attacks nine weeks before US troops are to withdraw from Iraqi cities.
At least 140 people have been killed in the past 24 hours as suicide bombers targeted areas packed with civilians in the capital and a restaurant filled with Iranian pilgrims further north.
The security arrangement reached in November between Washington and Bagdad calls for US forces to pull out of cities June 30 ahead of a full withdrawal from the country by late 2011.
But US and Iraqi officials were not ruling out pushing back the June 30 date, particularly in the case of Mosul seen as the last urban bastion of Al-Qaeda.
"If you ask me today, the one area I'm still not sure about is Mosul. But we will do a joint assessment," General Ray Odierno told CNN Friday.
"The bottom line is we're doing joint assessments with the government of Iraq in all of the areas today," Odierno added. "We'll provide recommendations to the prime minister (Nuri al-Maliki). "And he, ultimately, will make that decision whether they stay with combat forces in the city" past June 30.
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