President Bush has told the New York Times that he will withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq if the country's new government asks him to. But the president also said he expects Iraq's new leaders to agree that they need foreign forces to help with security until their own army and police are ready to do the job. U.S. and Iraqi officials say training those forces will be a major focus of U.S. military activity after Sunday's election. The effort is already underway, and is having some success, in spite of some well-publicized problems.
In recent months, when Iraqi insurgents have selected the targets for their attacks, they have often selected offices and camps of the new Iraqi police, army and national guard. The apparent goal is to disrupt the development of those forces, and scare potential recruits away from joining the force.
They have had some success, most notably the breakdown of the new police force in the northern town of Mosul amid an insurgent attack in November. But that force has been reconstituted, and Iraqi security forces in other areas have continued to operate, and grow, in spite of the attacks.
U.S. Army Major General John Batiste, who commands coalition forces in four provinces north and east of Baghdad, says the deadly attacks are not having the effect the terrorists wanted. "These great soldiers are undeterred," he said. "Their resolve is incredible. And I know that, because I spend a lot of time with them. We have no problem filling the ranks of the Iraqi army or the Iraqi police. There is no shortage of brave Iraqis that want to stand up for their country."
Planning security for Iraq's election, U.S. and Iraqi commanders and leaders decided to put Iraqi forces in the key positions at the more than five thousand polling stations around the country. Coalition forces were to stay at outside perimeters or in their bases, unless they were needed in an emergency. And officials say that method of operation will be used more and more in Iraq in the coming months.
"Clearly in the post-election environment in Iraq, we intend to increase the level of our training and partnership with the Iraqi security forces," said General John Abizaid, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East. "We clearly know that Iraqi security forces need to mature further. We know that the Iraqi people want that to happen," he said. "And as we move from this period of occupation to a period of partnership, more intense effort on our part to get those forces ready is something that has to be done."
Senior generals and other U.S. officials, including President Bush, say intensified training of Iraqi forces will be the main focus of U.S. military operations in Iraq in the coming months, along with continuing operations against the insurgents. "Our mission is focused on not only an increase on the number of Iraqis in uniform, whether it'd be army or national guard or border patrol or police, but to make sure the quality of their ability to fight is enhanced. And so, over the next year, we'll be advancing our plan to make sure the Iraqis are better prepared to defend themselves, and to fight," said Mr. Bush.
Officials say one of the keys to the plan is identifying and training leaders for the new Iraqi security forces at all levels. "We are now reaching a state that we are looking for the quality, not the quantity. We are looking for new, fresh leaders," said
Iraqi Minister of State Kasim Daoud. He says it is partly a matter of changing the psychology of Iraqi recruits, to make them loyal to the country and its constitution, which is to be written this year, rather than to individual political leaders, as they were in the past. "This mentality, we have to create it in the ideology of our new army," he said.
General Batiste, whose area includes part of the violent Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad, says the U.S. military has already started doing that. "It's all about establishing personal relationships. It's personal relationships between battalion commanders, Iraqi and American, battalion executive officers, battalion operations officers, right on down the line. What we have found is that the Iraqi army, no surprise, is just like us. There are so many similarities. And you build on that," he said.
Officials say that effort will be sharply increased, and could involve as many as 10-thousand U.S. military trainers being assigned to work directly with Iraqi military units to help them develop their officer corps, and to provide advice on specific tactics and operations. There is also a continuing program to provide equipment to the Iraqi forces.
One Iraqi general has predicted that Iraqi forces will be ready to take control of cities and towns within six months, and to take full responsibility for the country by the end of the year. But other officials have not endorsed that, saying the Iraqis will take control, and the foreign forces will begin to leave, as conditions allow, and they hope that will be as soon as possible.