The U.S. Defense Department says it is moving ahead with a new joint task force with the Iraqi government to begin to look at the criteria for the eventual handover of security control to Iraq's new military. The task force was first announced last Saturday by the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalizad. The creation of the task force follows conflicting assessments by U.S. and Iraqi officials on when Iraqi forces might be ready to take control of their country, or at least parts of it.
The chief Defense Department spokesman, Lawrence DiRita, says the group will focus on establishing criteria for determining how ready the various Iraqi military units are to take full control of their areas. He describes the effort as "preliminary," and says it is designed to make sure the U.S. military, and the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries are working from the same set of facts as they evaluate when Iraqi forces might be ready to take control.
"There was a general sense that it would be useful at a higher level than the amount of already multiple levels of interaction among those groups to put a little team together and develop criteria, additional criteria, and look at the way forward in terms of how comfortable everybody is with the Iraqi security forces' development," he said.
Mr. DiRita says the new U.S.-Iraqi team elevates the issue of the readiness of various Iraqi units to what he called a "more broad decision-making level or at least evaluation level." And he said it is intended to ensure that the status of the Iraqi forces is well understood throughout the Iraqi government.
The original announcement by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad says the task force will not establish any timeline, but rather will set the conditions for the transfer of security control, and that as those conditions are met in various parts of the country, Iraqi forces will take over. The task force is to issue a preliminary report within 60 days.
Various officials have offered sometimes widely different estimates of when Iraqi forces might be ready to take security control, and when U.S. and other coalition forces might be able to begin to withdraw.
On Wednesday, Iraq's transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari called for the beginning of a process to coordinate the eventual handover of security control to the Iraqi forces. The same day, the French News Agency, AFP, quoted senior Iraqi security official Muwaffaq Rubaie as saying he expects the U.S.-led coalition to give Iraqi forces security control in 10 major cities by December.
The Pentagon spokesman, Mr. DiRita, says the new committee's discussions will not be that specific at the beginning, but could turn to that once they develop the criteria for evaluating the Iraqi security forces' progress.
Senior U.S. officials say the timing of any such changes depends on the progress of the Iraqi forces, as well as the strength of the insurgency, and continuing improvements in the economic and political situation.
But this week, the senior U.S. general in Iraq, George Casey, said there could be what he called "some fairly substantial reductions" in the numbers of U.S. forces in the first part of next year, if the constitutional referendum and general elections are held as scheduled in October and December. That comment came a week after the number two U.S. military officer, General Peter Pace, said two thirds of the Iraqi army units are combat-ready, and half of the police force is operational. But he also reported that even among those units only a few are able to operate without some form of help from coalition forces.
In February, Iraq's Interior Minister, Falah Hasan al-Naqib, said the country would likely need foreign forces for another 18 months, and possibly longer, at least in a support role.
The statement from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad also announced the creation of joint task forces on securing Iraq's infrastructure, and on Iraq's budget, international assistance, and Iraqi detainees.