American and Iraqi officials agree that the key to a stable government in Iraq are efficient military and police institutions that can stand on their own and allow U.S. and allied forces to leave. But establishing a capable Iraqi security force has become far more complicated than running boot camps for recruits.
A solemn service on an Iraqi military base in Kadamiyah, northwest of Baghdad, marks the unveiling of the first memorial in the country dedicated to Iraqi Army soldiers, who have died defending their country after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
The soldiers honored on this day are members of the U.S.-trained Sixth Division, First Brigade. The unit distinguished itself several months ago by becoming the country's first Iraqi combat unit to begin functioning largely on its own, independent of U.S. troops, in its day-to-day operations.
At the ceremony, the man who has been leading the American effort to train Iraqis, Lieutenant General David Petraeus, praised the progress made since Iraq's security forces were formed after Saddam's army was disbanded in May 2003.
"We've made great strides," the general noted. "We've enabled them to establish over 105 battalions that are in the fight, from the army and the police. And an increasing number of those are actually leading our forces, if you will."
The total number of trained Iraqi security forces now stands at about 176,000, with nearly 96,000 answering to the Iraqi Interior Ministry and almost 81,000 to the Ministry of Defense.
But a Pentagon report, released last month, concluded that half of the new police battalions were still not capable of conducting operations on their own, while the other half of police and two-thirds of army battalions were deemed only partially capable.
General Petraeus acknowledges that not all Iraqi units are at the level where the U.S. military would like them to be. But he says he believes that some units, operating in peaceful areas largely unaffected by the insurgency, are now showing enough skill to allow the United States and its allies to begin drawing down troop levels.
"Out of the 18 provinces that Iraq has, certainly the nine southern provinces and of course, the three Iraqi Kurdish provinces, Iraqi security forces are in the lead," he explained. "On the other hand, there are still some places such as in Anbar province, where our forces are in the lead and Iraqis are fighting alongside rather than leading the way. And in those cases, we have to continue to develop the forces, continue to develop the infrastructure, and so forth."
The population of Anbar province is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, the religious community that lost power in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been at the core of the country's two year-old insurgency. Some of the fiercest fighting in the war has taken place in cities in Anbar province, such as Fallujah and Ramadi, and in other Sunni towns in northern and central Iraq, where most of the 138,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
No one has ventured a guess as to when these areas, including the capital of Baghdad, could be deemed secure enough to transfer entirely to Iraqis. But the deputy chief of staff for the Iraqi army, Lieutenant General Nasier Abadi says his troops are already playing a major role.
"Take the west. The west, we have two brigades and one [of them] is conducting operations on their own with the Marines," he noted. "You go north, the Third Division is conducting in Tal Afar and all the way to the border. And even the border security is going to be under the armed forces to coordinate on the western front to stop the attacks coming from our neighbors. Deeds speak louder than words. We are doing a lot."
But as the Iraqi military grows, observers here say the nation must also develop the systems to support them, including finance, supply and maintenance.
Iraqi army commanders complain regularly that they can not pay soldiers' salaries or properly maintain military bases because the Ministry of Defense is failing to provide enough funds. Earlier this month, a member of Iraq's anti-corruption commission told reporters that widespread graft was crippling the defense ministry.
There is also evidence that the rise of deep-rooted sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are causing a bitter power struggle at the ministries that oversee the security forces.
Sunni Arab leaders have accused the new Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government of replacing capable Sunni Interior Ministry officials with inexperienced Shi'ites from the government bloc. Sunnis further charge that a Shi'ite militia, called the Badr Brigade, has taken over key positions within the Interior Ministry and has formed hit squads to assassinate clerics and other prominent Sunni leaders.
Shi'ite government leaders deny the charges. They say many of the killings of Sunnis, as well as the killings of hundreds of Shi'ites across the country, are being carried out by Saddam loyalists and Sunni radicals, who have infiltrated the Defense Ministry.
Army Brigadier General Karl Horst, who acts as the main American liaison between the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces in the greater Baghdad area, says blame for sectarian violence does not neatly fall upon one group or the other.
"There are militant factions within the both Sunni and Shi'ite that are trying to undermine the other's authority," he said. " It's certainly a challenge for us and what we've been is very direct with them about meeting the goals and objectives of the government and security forces and not allowing ourselves to be distracted with unnecessary friction within their organizations."
Political tensions in Iraq are likely to increase in the coming weeks, as the country struggles to create a constitutional democracy that satisfies all sides. A national referendum on the constitution could come as early as mid-October.
That would provide the biggest test yet of what progress has been made - and how much more needs to be done - toward putting Iraq in charge of its own security.